Lowcountry backers optimistic on GOP long shot's chances

Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul hasn't even visited the Lowcountry, but he still has a core group of supporters here feverishly working to help him win.

They know it's a long shot — most polls show him in the low single digits — but that doesn't dim their hopes.

Like the Texas Congressman himself, Paulites are against the war in Iraq — like most Democratic candidates — but they also harbor a strong libertarian streak with a dislike of big govern- ment and taxes impinging on their freedom.

In Charleston, they're operating out of a former lube and oil shop, off the beaten path but ardently attempting to be in the middle of the national conversation.

Amanda Moore, Paul's South Carolina field coordinator, set up shop on Belgrade Avenue in West Ashley to help spread Paul's message, particularly his noninterventionist foreign policy.

"It's time to stop bashing these countries on the head and telling them, 'You're going to be free.' If you want them to be free, you lead by example," she said.

Paul's criticism of the United States' invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq sets him apart dramatically from his other GOP competitors and party leaders. After Paul criticized the war during a July debate in Columbia, state GOP chairman Katon Dawson said, "I thought Ron Paul fell off the stage."

Still, Dawson acknowledges that voters who like Paul really like him.

"I see a lot of handmade signs (for Paul). That means passion when you see handmade signs," he said. "They're very passionate about his ideas, the constitution. With that being said, I don't see a wide grassroots network that's enough to win an election of this magnitude. I could be wrong, but I just don't see it."

A recent Winthrop-ETV poll asking likely Republican voters who they would vote for in the primary showed Ron Paul with only 2.1 percent, less than the 4 percent margin of error, but it was more than Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo — all who have campaigned here — combined. Still, four others — Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson — are well ahead of him.

Clemson University political science professor Bruce Ransom also has noticed Paul's popularity among the youngest voters.

"There are signs all around Clemson. I just run into them anywhere," he said. "A lot of young people in particular have been attracted to his campaign, and they are passionate, I would say almost to the point of resembling a cult. They believe he's going to go on and win in '08. They, for whatever it's worth, don't believe the polls."

One reason they don't believe in polls is because pollsters overlook young voters, such as Allison Gibbs, 24, a microbiologist at MUSC. Gibbs leads a late-night meet up group of Paul supporters and volunteers almost 40 hours a week for his campaign.

"I don't have a land line, I have a cell phone. We aren't getting polled," she said.

While Moore helps oversee "the grunt work" of Paul's campaigning — canvassing voters, running phone banks, distributing signs and the like — it's on the Internet where the campaign has struck some impressive chords.

Paul is the top Republican as far as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube hits; of the eye-opening $5 million that Paul's campaign raised between July and September, 70 percent came from online donations.

Moore, who hasn't been very involved in politics since helping Arthur Ravenel win a congressional seat two decades ago, said Paul's message of freedom resonates strongly with her.

"He stands for the little people, and when the little people come out of the closet, it's going to shake up the establishment," she said. "It's time for a change, and there's going to be a change."

Gibbs said even if Paul ultimately falls short, she won't think her work was for nothing.

"If he doesn't win, I feel he will be the new Barry Goldwater. He will set the standard for conservatism," she said. "He seems very honest when he speaks. There's something raw about him and new."

And local supporters who meet up weekly at places like Gene's Haufbrau could soon have even more reason to get excited about Paul's candidacy: He is expected to make his first campaign visit to Charleston before the end of the month.