WASHINGTON — If Ron Paul's supporters got together for a family portrait, it would be one of those pictures in which no one seems to resemble anyone else.
"You have old-school Republicans, the conservatives who backed Barry Goldwater (in 1964). You have the antiwar crowd who are principled non-interventionists," said Jim Forsythe, a former Air Force major who's organized meet-and-greet sessions in New Hampshire for the Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate.
You also have businessmen tired of government regulation, college students who like his views on holistic medicine and middle-aged folks who don't see Social Security helping them in a few years. There are people who supported Democrat Howard Dean four years ago and others who backed conservative Republican Pat Buchanan in the 1990s.
What brings them together is a common belief that government is too big, obtrusive and unresponsive.
"It's a desire to get government out of my life. That's it," said Rick Grote, a pharmacist in Hampton, Iowa.
That bond has made Paul one of the more striking phenomena of the 2008 campaign. He's slowly climbed to poll respectability in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and his fundraising now rivals better-known foes such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
Perhaps ironically for a 72-year-old physician who ran a barely noticed campaign for president on the Libertarian Party ticket 19 years ago, his current success is in part due to the Internet, which has brought together like-minded voters who've never met and probably never would have.
Like Crystal Schryver, a homemaker from Earlham, Iowa.
"I've always voted," she said, "but I'm what you would consider nonpolitical. But my husband heard him speak, I looked on the Internet and I was hooked."
The more she looked, the more she liked. Schryver had home-schooled three of her four children, and she found that Paul was a strong supporter of nonpublic education. On another visit to the Paul site, she found information about his bill to expand Americans' ability to use alternative medicine.
"Every night I look on the Internet and I find something interesting from that campaign," she said. "We love to listen to his speeches. He's so fascinating."
The Paul campaign counts more than 40,000 supporters on Facebook, nearly twice as many as Mitt Romney has, and more than 90,000 friends on MySpace, twice as many as McCain.
While the Paul army may share a belief that government needs to shrink and even disappear, its members have very different motives for joining. Among them:
David Fischer has run a three-person research firm in Des Moines, Iowa, since 1993. When he started his firm, he had to pay state and federal unemployment insurance and fill out lengthy forms.
Eventually, his obligation to provide payments to the state stopped, because no one at his firm was laid off, "yet I have to file reports every quarter, and I keep getting mail from the government," Fischer said.
"This is a small example of what's wrong with government. There's too much regulation," he added. "I can't even put a Ron Paul sign in my yard without making sure I've complied with all kinds of city and county ordinances going on for hundreds of pages."
THE NEW GRADUATE
Meghann Walker voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
"I didn't educate myself. I was influenced by my friends. When you live in Chicago and you're young, you tend to be a Democrat," the 25-year-old said.
Now she's in Des Moines, helping the Paul campaign, and she finds a lot to like. She has serious questions about the USA Patriot Act, the Iraq war, immigration policy and more, and Paul seems to have a lot of answers.
"I don't want government regulating anything in my life," she said. How about border control, she's asked.
"Look at the Minutemen," she answered, citing the citizen border patrollers. "They're helping to protect and defend our country."
THE SOCIAL SECURITY SKEPTIC
Roger Barr, 50, is nervous that Social Security won't be much help when he retires.
Give him the money, the Newton, Iowa, Internet-technology manager said, and he could invest it. "I am able to take care of myself and my family," Barr said. "But the government instead takes it and gives me all those programs."
Until Paul, he said, candidates forgot that "I am the employer, and the government is the employee."
THE ABORTION FOE
Every major Republican candidate is anti-abortion, though they differ about how far they'd go to outlaw the practice. Paul, an obstetrician-gynecologist who's delivered more than 4,000 babies and says he's never considered performing an abortion, says he'd end federal courts' ability to interfere with state legislation to ban abortions (although the Supreme Court might block him).
Jeremy DeWitt, a Des Moines painting contractor, sees that as an uncompromising position.
There shouldn't even be a debate over where life begins, DeWitt said; "most scientists agree life begins at the point of conception."
Debbie Monaghan voted for Dean, the antiwar Democrat, in the 2004 Iowa caucus.
She thought then, and thinks now, that the Iraq war is a fool's mission. And she wants the U.S. government to stop getting involved in so many foreign adventures.
"We're spending so much money trying to be peacekeepers," the Hampton employee of Cargill said. "Yet our borders are wide open. Why aren't we spending the money to protect us over here?"
The anti-interventionist theme probably echoes more loudly across Paul's campaign than most, because more than any other issue it illustrates what Paul backers see as the most obvious evil of big government.
Forsythe, a New Hampshire aerospace engineer, spent 12 years in the Air Force, flying missions in Bosnia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. He was at Khobar Towers, a residential complex in Saudi Arabia, just before it was bombed in 1996. Nineteen American servicemen died.
"The people in Saudi Arabia didn't like the American military walking the streets. They didn't want us there. Their government did," Forsythe recalled.
He'd joined the military in 1990, as the Cold War was ending. He saw the need to defend the United States from the communist threat. But with that threat gone, he found, "we tended to get into conflicts for political purposes. We're not driven by well-defined goals."
Paul understands that, Forsythe said. Grote, the Hampton pharmacist, agreed.
"There's a difference between defense and just going out there and building an empire," Grote said. "Ron Paul understands that, and he has a history of voting that way."
ON THE WEB
Data on presidential candidates' number of MySpace friends: http://techpresident.com/scrape_plot/myspace
Data on Facebook supporters of presidential candidates: http://techpresident.com/scrape_plot/facebook