By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Behind a townhouse in northern Silver Spring, a half-dozen paint-spattered people are raising awareness for maverick presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Lawyer Chellis Gonzalez, former Green Party member Jennifer Frith, 9/11 widower Patrick Welsh, technology marketer Pete Stelynk and Java programmer Chuck Glenn, all passionate supporters of the 72-year-old Texan Republican, are making signs.
"It's a really disparate bunch," said "Reason" magazine associate editor Michael Moynihan of supporters drawn by the anti-war, small government or fringe political messages. Moynihan attended a different Paul event recently. "There are a lot of disaffected people after these last eight years."
A broad swath of Maryland "Paulanteers" have rallied to push the nine-term congressman to high single-digit support here, well above his low single-digit support nationwide. The polls were taken before conservative former Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out of the race. Many who like his character and controversial positions are first-time political activists who don't fit the Paul supporter stereotype of young Internet nerds.
The support has translated into financial success - contributors have given more than would be expected from a state of Maryland's size and political leanings.
Gonzalez, a 50-year-old single mother of three, is one of the many in the "Ron Paul Revolution" drawn to the former obstetrician for his "unassailable" positions, including his foreign policy.
"He gets criticized a lot for saying we should treat countries the way we would like to be treated," said the Hillandale resident. "I believe in the golden rule and I think it applies equally to countries."
She watches YouTube clips of the candidate to boost their ratings, discusses Paul on dates and participates in sign-wavings. She's even become a one-person event while waiting for carryout or outside the Metro, pulling a sign out of her Honda Civic hybrid to raise awareness of the candidate who favors abolishing the federal income tax, ending the war, and restoring sound monetary policies.
Welsh, too, is an enthusiast. He lost his wife, United 93 flight attendant Debbie Welsh, when hijackers crashed her plane on Sept. 11, 2001, to prevent crew and passengers from taking control. Drama comes to the fore when the actor speaks of Paul's character.
"When I was a little kid I was so fascinated with Patrick Henry standing up, 'Give me liberty or give me death'," said Welsh.
"That's the first guy I've seen who's anything close to that."
Frith, a former Republican, registered with the Green Party but now has returned to the Republican Party to back Paul. Her boyfriend's brother, who died a few months ago from leukemia, might have benefited from holistic medicines illegal in the U.S. if Paul's ideas on them prevailed.
She explains her support, "It started with health freedom and it blossomed to his platform."
"Once you get it, you're not likely to be going back to politics as usual," said Bruce Voris, a space satellite engineer who serves as captain of Paul's Howard County Meetup Group, an Internet organizing technique that allows like-minded individuals in an area to find one another.
These groups, partly credited with the fundraising success of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, are the nucleus of Paul's grassroots operation. Eight Maryland-specific Paul organizations reach more than 300 e-mail addresses. Other Republican candidates reach a fraction of Marylanders through this technology.
Using Meetup Groups, state delegate coordinator Collins Bailey, a lumber broker and four-term Charles County Board of Education member, filled the slate of delegates and alternate delegates before any other Republican presidential candidate.
Bailey's family has even joined the Paul parade. Paul's ideas galvanized his wife and 20- and 22-year-old sons, and rekindled his interest in national politics after 20 years of merely voting.
"We watch all the debates together and discuss all the issues," said the 54-year-old, a Waldorf resident of more than two decades. "I haven't seen this type of enthusiasm since the Robert Kennedy days."
But recent events have the potential to erode Paul's support. A "New Republic" article found Paul's eponymous newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s contained many more racist references than previously known. On the Fox News debate of Jan. 10, he was forced to answer questions about his electability, when others were not.
Backers have rallied to him in the wake of the criticisms, circulating televised responses by their candidate, including one where Paul says his plan to end the Iraq War and to stop jailing non-violent drug offenders would greatly benefit the black community.
This media coverage is an attempt to distract voters from legitimate campaign issues, Paul's true believers say, and they predict it will cause a backlash.
"I think it has galvanized support even more," said Gonzalez.
Part of Paul's support comes from voters at the margins of the political spectrum, those who, for example, support the legalization of drugs or believe the monetary system is rigged for the rich. Activists fear statements from these supporters will undercut Paul's credibility.
Germantown businessman Pete Buchynsky's concerns include the drop in U.S. currency, illegal immigration, the potential for a long-term American presence in Iraq and the integrity of voting machines. He also favors decriminalizing marijuana use.
"The Feds would make more money if they grew it and sold it alongside Jim Beam in an alcohol store," says Buchynsky, 51. "The real gateway drug is alcohol. In Amsterdam, all drugs are decriminalized and the crime rate is so much lower than ours."
On the whole, Paul activists don't believe he'll be elected president. But they are optimistic that his positions will get more mainstream media coverage and candidate support.
"What I'm really hoping for - regardless of whether or not he makes it into the White House - is an awareness of the issues he's bringing forth," said Frith at the sign-making event.
"That's the biggest thing - the exposure and the issues."