Seven months ago, when Ron Paul was jeered on national TV for suggesting that America invited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many election-watchers figured he would wind up as either a punchline or an afterthought in the Republican presidential race.
On Saturday in Rock Hill, Paul showed why he will be remembered for a lot more than that.
The Texas congressman spoke to a raucous crowd of close to 600 people at the Freedom Center in what was perhaps the most unusual York County Republican event in recent memory.
Young men came sporting mohawks, tattoos and headbands. Grown men waved flags and chanted the candidate's name. Dozens waited in line for nearly an hour to shake hands and get a photo.
It was an audience that seemed more likely to be at a Grateful Dead concert than a political rally. But this has become the norm for Paul, whose message resonates with an eclectic band of supporters who typically don't take part in presidential campaigns.
"The government controls everything," Paul said during an hourlong speech. "They want to tell us what we can do, what we can eat and smoke. They want to control our incomes. What we need to do is stand up and fight for our Constitution."
Known as the "Ron Paul Revolution," the fight includes abolishing the income tax, Federal Reserve and Department of Education, considering a withdrawal from the United Nations, and, unlike other GOP candidates, pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.
These ideas are catching on with disenchanted Republicans and independents such as Tim Cole, an electrical engineer from Charlotte.
"When you look across the crowd, it's not old men and bankers," he said. "You've got guys in mohawks, old veterans, kids. Nobody looks at what makes them different. Everybody looks at what's pulling them together."
Excitement belies polls
What's less clear is whether the people being pulled together are eligible to cast ballots in the early primary states. Several supporters interviewed by The Herald said they had driven from Charlotte and cities around North Carolina, meaning they can't vote in the Palmetto State's Jan. 19 GOP primary.
The nontraditional base of support helps to explain why Paul's poll numbers don't match up with the enthusiasm at his appearances. An S.C. poll released by The Associated Press last week showed him in sixth place with 6 percent.
Speaking with reporters, Paul hinted at the long odds of victory. He also said he has "essentially" ruled out running as a third-party candidate, as many are hoping. But Paul suggested that his campaign will have made a difference whatever the outcome.
"I think they are going to remain active, regardless of what I do," he said of his supporters. "We will continue with an educational movement. Even in the coming year, I think you'll see candidates run on this platform."
A few moments later, Paul was scheduled to depart on a private jet for a speech in Anderson and an evening rally in Greenville. Some in the Rock Hill audience said they planned to drive to Greenville to be there.
With the presidential primaries looming, we've launched a new feature on our Web site. We'll post audio interviews with political activists and campaign workers from around our area.
The first installment asks: What's all the fuss about Fair Tax, a conservative group pushing sweeping tax reform? We spotlight Christian Hine of Fort Mill, co-chairman of the York County Fair Tax group.