While fellow Republican hopefuls Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum fight it out in Florida, Ron Paul, dark-horse candidate and Constitutional fundamentalist, sallied forth along his unorthodox campaign trail, hitting states with upcoming caucuses rather than primaries. With Maine's Republican caucus slated to run from February 4 through 11, Paul's "Plan to Restore America" tour brought him to the Pine Tree State last weekend, where he visited six towns in two days.
I went to see him at stop four, 11 am Saturday morning at the Randall Center on USM's Gorham campus. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect. The turnout was strong — 600 by the campaign's count — and those who arrived even half an hour early were too late to see the man himself, so we were shepherded into the university's library, where the organizers were to project Paul's speech onto the big screen.
It's difficult to transfer stump-rally enthusiasm to a remote location, where the candidate can't hear your applause, but many of the displaced supporters were insistent on bringing it. As the video feed struggled with bandwidth issues, some 250 of us stretched the auditorium to its capacity. A row of supporters stood against the room's back wall as Paul began, deriding the role of government and extolling the free market. "I don't think it's all that complicated," Paul remarked early on (referring, one assumes, to the solutions to the problems facing the US), and though it wasn't a statement designed for applause, it seemed to be as good a campaign summary as any.
In many ways, Paul, 76, is a welcome relief from Republicans of the Silent or Boomer generations. Wearing a pale blue sweater, he spoke enthusiastically, gesticulatively, and without the authorial didacticism of his political counterparts. "How unfair is the system we have today?" he rhetorically asked, before cautioning us about the fallacy that "the temptation is to tax the rich." Paul's position of military disarmament, which has endeared him to youth and lefties alike, was well covered at the university, and it was refreshing to see a GOP candidate so unhawkish. If nothing else, Paul's openly antiwar stance proves that bringing the troops home is increasingly a bipartisan concern.
Unfortunately, the Skyped-in live feed failed the auditorium too early to capture the thrust of Paul's speech, so I don't think I was alone in the decision to follow him to Freeport, where he was scheduled to speak from the second-floor patio of Linda Bean's Maine Kitchen and Topside Tavern at 1:30. It was a mild January day, and another 600 or so followers gathered in the intersection at the corner of Bow and Main streets, waiting for Paul to emerge after lunch. As the crowd collected below, it felt a little vulgar to watch Linda Bean, a major conservative donor and entrepreneurial magnate (who would stand to benefit greatly from Paul's proposed payroll-tax slashing), deliver Paul's introductory speech — but on the other hand, what good is a Ron Paul rally if it regulates corporate interests? Bean's task was to stoke the crowd's enthusiasm in 40-degree weather and she did it well, trumpeting the Texan's political resume in a laudatory call-and-response — though she hit a flat note when she championed him as "the Godfather of the Tea Party movement," which drew scattered applause at best. There was also a bit of ballyhoo about the connection between "freedom," Paul's one-size-fits-all political solvent, and the origins of Freeport, which she inexplicably linked to celebrating 100 years of L.L. Bean.