WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is pushing for a strong second-place finish in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, where his Libertarian-style campaign seems to resonate with the state's independent-minded voters and young people.
The latest Suffolk University tracking poll, released Friday, puts Paul at 17 percent, behind runaway front-runner Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who has a home in the Granite State and holds a strong lead with 40 percent.
But Paul's enthusiastic supporters say they expect a surge in the "Live Free or Die" state, home to the Libertarian Party's Free State Project, a movement to get thousands of people to move to New Hampshire from around the country beginning in 2004 to influence the political process.
"Many of the Republicans here are Libertarians," said Seth Cohn, a GOP state representative who moved to the Granite State in 2004 from Oregon as part of the Free State effort.
A Paul supporter, Cohn said, "I think it's a good state for him. I think he's about independence. He challenges the status quo on everything."
There's a special fondness for Paul among Libertarian-leaning voters because he was the party's presidential standard-bearer in 1988. Paul was a Republican congressman from Texas from the late 1970s until 1985, and he was elected again in 1996.
He's said he'll retire after this term and won't seek the Libertarian presidential nomination if he doesn't win the GOP nomination.
New Hampshire should give him a boost after his third-place Iowa caucus finish last week. Independents can vote in the Republican primary, which is significant in New Hampshire, where 40 percent of the electorate identifies as independent.
"Dr. Paul gets votes from both extremes of the New Hampshire electorate: Libertarians and young voters. I think he's at least going to double his performance from 2008," said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Paul had 8 percent of Granite State primary votes in 2008, but this election cycle has generated buzz for him with steady debate performances, edgy television ads attacking GOP rivals Newt Gingrich and Romney — blasting Gingrich for "serial hypocrisy" — and a beneath-the-radar Internet campaign fueled by college students.
"He's built his base of support. He's been a real presence," Scala said.
It's no accident that Paul's return to New Hampshire on Friday featured an evening appearance at the University of New Hampshire.
Paul, at 76 the oldest candidate in the race, has a feverish following among young voters, who communicate via Facebook for "meet-ups" around the state to promote the Texas lawmaker and create online "money bombs" to raise funds.
Recent reports that newsletters written under Paul's name in the 1980s and early '90s included racist and intolerant views — disavowed by Paul, who said he didn't write them — don't appear to have cut into his support.
Neal Conner, 25, a college student and computer technician who moved to New Hampshire from Sarasota, Fla., in 2009 as part of the Free State Project, plans to get up at 4 a.m. Tuesday as a ward captain for the local get-out-the-vote effort for Paul.
What's the Paul appeal? "The fact that he speaks his mind and speaks the truth," Conner said. "He's just refreshingly honest."
Supporters praise Paul's stance against the war in Afghanistan, as well as his civil libertarian views on drugs and personal behavior.
"Kids have a strong sense of right and wrong, where there's no gray area," said University of Maryland student Geoffrey Nye, who's 26.
Several Paul websites lit up last week over an opinion piece written by a nephew of GOP candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum that endorsed Paul and blasted Santorum in the process.
"If you want another big-government politician who supports the status quo to run our country, you should vote for my uncle, Rick Santorum," said John Garver, Santorum's 19-year-old nephew, in The Daily Caller, an online conservative news site.
Santorum shrugged the slam as "a phase" and said he loved his nephew, who he said was the only one of his 35 nieces and nephews to support Paul.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012