Although on economic issues he is arguably the most conservative candidate now running for president in either major party, Republican Ron Paul is scoring surprisingly well across political boundaries these days, using campaigning techniques that his local Memphis organizer, Chris Holley, frankly attributes to Democratic populist Howard Dean.
"He's the father of the method," acknowledges Holley of Dean, the former Vermont governor and current chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whose dramatic run for president was based on innovative grass-roots methods and extensive use of the Internet. "We've taken Howard Dean's idea and put it on steroids," says Holley, citing as one example a massive effort this past weekend, in which local Paul enthusiasts, working from late Saturday into the wee hours of Sunday, put up "over 150 banners and 500 signs" touting the maverick Texas congressman's suddenly nascent presidential campaign.
The small signs, which are posted on utility poles and in other right-of-way areas, appear to be stenciled. The banners advertise in large block letters "The Ron Paul Revolution," and a curiosity of them is that the four letters e-v-o-l appear in a bright, superimposed red as the word "love" spelled backward. If that smacks of the 1960s' flower children, that's at least partly because the Paul movement contains several youthful activists of that sort — like a 20-ish girl calling herself "Sky" (a drummer in a rock band, it turns out) who, one night last week, brandished a poster touting Paul to Germantown Parkway traffic.
And, to look at the group's locally produced YouTube offering, "The Ron Paul Revolution, Memphis Style," it would seem that the similarities persist. The five-minute video offers a dose of politics flavored with "BBQ, iced tea, and Elvis" and, to a background of the remastered Presley song "A Little Less Conversation," features a montage of Paul's local supporters preparing and executing the sign-and-banner operation, called "Painting the Town Ron." A climactic scene has a group of Paulites holding banners at the gates of Graceland itself.
"It's the most popular Ron Paul video on YouTube right now," boasts Holley proudly.
Holley himself grew up on Rush Limbaugh broadcasts and considers himself a movement conservative, but he acknowledges that Paul supporters, who come together via Internet-arranged "meet-ups," come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. "We've got liberals, conservatives, libertarians, old, young, all kinds," Holley says.
One of the givens would seem to be a disaffection with the Bush administration on civil-liberties grounds and a common opposition to the Iraq war.
It was libertarian Paul's fervid denunciation of the war and of other "unconstitutional" interventions in foreign countries in a South Carolina debate of Republican candidates three months ago that largely fueled the candidate's current popularity.
Ever since, Paul seems to have downplayed less well-known parts of his platform — like opposition to the Federal Reserve System — and has mainly been asked about his anti-war position on venues like HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, whose notably acerbic and left-leaning host recently called the wizened 71-year-old Paul "my new hero."
Paul is also something of a hero to Angelo Cobrasci, the founder of the Shelby County Conservative Republican Club and editor/publisher of The Mid-South Patriot.
"I'd celebrate big-time if he got elected president," says Cobrasci, whose support for Paul is based on the Texan's defense of various constitutional guarantees which Cobrasci sees as being in danger right now. "But none of us really expect that he'll get that far. If he finished second or third in a key state, or if he did well enough to become somebody's cabinet possibility, that'd be great."
Cobrasci had hoped to attract Paul as a speaker for the SCCRC, but says ruefully, "We found out he was overbooked!"
Like Holley, Cobrasci sees the Paul movement as being broadly based, consisting of "a large variety of people that usually would not be seen with each other: Republicans, Democrats, people from 18 to 60."
Conventional wisdom says that the Paul boom will blow over long before next year's election, but Holley isn't so sure. "We're right up there with anybody nationally," he says and wants to assure Memphians that there's much more to come.
Willingham got a 19-17 majority vote last Thursday night from the party's steering committee. The vote thereby overruled both a candidate recruitment subcommittee (which had formally recommended no endorsement) and party chairman Bill Giannini, who had made no secret of his wish that Republicans avoid endorsing a candidate in the mayor's race.
"John's been there for us all these years, and he's the only Republican running. He deserved our support," said steering committee member Jean Drumwright, a longtime GOP activist whose vigilance on Willingham's behalf had her at one point literally standing over recruitment committee chairman Wayne West, overseeing his count of members' ballots.
"Bill Giannini threatened to have me thrown out," said Drumwright. His statement was corroborated by Willingham supporter Bob Pittman, who complained of a "self-serving element in the party" that, in recent years, had been insufficiently supportive of Republican candidates in favor of nominal Democrats.
He included in that characterization longtime GOP eminence John Ryder, who is co-chairman for the mayoral race of rival candidate Herman Morris and backed up Giannini and the recruitment committee in calling for no official endorsement in a race that, Ryder argued, was strictly nonpartisan.
Other Republicans, like Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz, were vehement supporters of a nonendorsement policy. "Please quote me," Ritz insisted. "This endorsement of Willingham is potentially disastrous. It could doom Republican endorsees further down the ballot."
Though Willingham, who has been polling in the lower single digits, clearly has huge obstacles to surmount in his effort to achieve viability, there is no doubt that the former county commissioner will draw significant benefit from the party endorsement, which carries with it ample support in the form of mail-outs, fund-raising benefits, and other official activity.
By the same token, the campaigns of Carol Chumney and Morris, both of whom have harbored hopes of support from rank-and-file Republicans, may be blunted somewhat.