With iconoclast Ron Paul having ended his quixotic bid for the Republican presidential nomination - his platform had called for, among other things, ending the Iraq War, repealing the PATRIOT Act, returning to the gold standard and eliminating taxes on tips - his many dedicated supporters are up for grabs.
Even excluding his support in caucus states, Paul received a few more than a million votes in the Republican primary, finished second in five states including Pennsylvania and Oregon and continued to draw votes well after he'd effectively withdrawn from the race. His campaign also tapped into the potent new vein of online fundraising, punctuated by the so-called "money bomb" day when his supporters, unaided by his campaign, managed to pump $5 million into his coffers in 24 hours.
It's a support base that could make the difference in a close election, and while there's no guarantee that his supporters will turn out at the polls for GOP standard-bearer , one thing seems clear: Despite their overlapping anti-Iraq war positions, will not make major inroads among them.
Paul's campaign says he is unlikely to endorse anyone. Absent that endorsement, many of his campaign officials expect Paul's votes will splinter - and the names of Libertarian candidate Bob Barr and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin come up at least as frequently as does Obama's.
"I would be very surprised to see many people going for Barack Obama," said Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign spokesman. "Barr will pick up some, but the majority will go Republican or stay home."
"Obama's probably getting the least support from Ron Paul supporters," said Marianne Stebbins, Paul's state coordinator in Minnesota. "Fewer will vote for Obama than Bob Barr. There will be some because the war is such a big issue, but they can also vote for Barr."
Paul's unique mix of views, which included privatizing social security, allowing states to legalize medicinal marijuana, opposition to abortion rights, enhanced border security and opposition to environmental regulation attracted a rabid following of supporters to his campaign. Their activity online - one popular conservative blog banned pro-Paul comments after being inundated with them - and their campaign donations delivered Paul from obscurity to the top tier of Republican candidates. He raised $17.75 million in the last quarter of 2007 - the most money of any Republican.
The organizing success led to strong finishes in many primaries, particularly among younger voters. In Iowa, for instance, he attracted just 10 percent of the vote overall, but took 21 percent of the vote among caucus goers younger than 30.
While it had little impact on his base of political support, Paul found himself the subject of widespread criticism when racist remarks published in the 1990s in the Ron Paul Political Report, a newsletter he's distributed for decades, came to light in January. Unsigned articles - which Paul denies having written or even read and says he disagrees with, but some of which had personal details that corresponded to his - in the newsletter bearing his name attacked blacks, gays and pro-Israel groups. One article claimed that "order was only restored [after the 1992 Los Angeles riots] when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks."
"I don't see Ron Paul supporters voting for Obama," said David Hart, Paul's Montana state coordinator. "They recognize Obama's positions are diametrically opposed to things we believe in."
For some Paul supporters, the only way they can see supporting McCain is if the presumptive GOP nominee reverses his core positions on foreign and economic policy.
"Unless McCain does make changes in his platform," including abandoning his support for the Iraq War and renouncing deficit spending, "I don't think [Paul supporters] will be voting for him," said Hart, who hopes to attend the Republican Convention as a delegate for the state. "They will more likely be voting for the Constitution Party or Bob Barr."
"It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of the disaffected Republicans would cast their vote for Bob Barr because he's much more conservative than John McCain," said Jeff Greenspan, Paul's Nevada state coordinator.
Although Paul is often called a libertarian, his supporters seem to be significantly more conservative than most libertarian-leaning voters, who were nearly split between Bush and Kerry in 2004.
Paul "tapped into anti-war, socially conservative voters," explained Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the libertarian CATO Institute.
"A lot of [Paul supporters] are going to vote a straight Republican ticket," said Jean McIver. "A number will vote Republican for everything but the president."
Others, though, will vote for McCain as the lesser of the two evils with a chance of taking the White House. "A lot of [Paul supporters] are in a quandary over McCain," said Jean McIver, Paul's Texas coordinator. "Some will vote for McCain because they don't want Obama to win."
Paul's campaign officials also complain that his supporters have felt shunned by the Republican Party, particularly at state party conventions where they have often come out in large numbers. In Nevada, the state party attempted a rule change that Paul supporters say was intended to tamp down the large number of them running for positions at party delegates. In states where the primary is non-binding, such as Montana, Paul's grassroots activists who have been elected to attend the RNC still may cast their ballots for him.
And Paul is holding his own rally in Minneapolis during the convention.
"A lot depends on how Republicans treat people who come to support Ron Paul," said Benton.
The McCain campaign says they will reach out to Paul's voters on a personal level and that they will win them over. "Unlike Barack Obama, John McCain does not believe that government is the answer to every problem," said McCain spokesman Joe Pounder. "At the end of the day, Ron Paul supporters will find that their positions align more often with John McCain."
But the Obama camp also hopes to pull in some of Paul's voters by appealing to the same discontent with mainstream Republicans that drew them to Paul. "We think disenchanted Republicans and independents will choose Barack Obama over John McCain for the same reason they chose Ron Paul over John McCain ... a war that has made us less secure, a debt that will burden our children and grandchildren and degraded our Constitution, and instead of change, John McCain offers more of the same," said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.
But some Paul supporters are concerned not only that Obama does not share their domestic positions, but also that he is not anti-war enough.
"Obama's voted for continued funding of the war," said Debbie Hopper, Paul's Missouri coordinator. "His foreign policy isn't noninterventionist, as we believe it should be."
"He's very much into supporting the war effort even though he says he'll withdraw," said Hart of Montana.
Left-leaning independent candidate Ralph Nader - whose views on activist government domestically are diametrically opposed to Paul's - has attempted to get in on the potential Paul-supporters vote bonanza. Nader issued an appeal to Paul's voters immediately after Paul dropped out, saying, "there is a clear choice for those who want to support a candidate who will stand up against the war and stand up for personal liberties and privacy."
But Nader's plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Not one of the Paul activists interviewed for this article mentioned Nader.
"I sure haven't heard anybody talking about him," said Hopper.
By Ben Adler