At 10:40 on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul entered the brightly lit gymnasium of Valley High School in West Des Moines surrounded by so many reporters thrusting so many recording devices into the airspace around his head that neither he nor his son Rand, the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky, could see the stage in the center of the gym’s sparkling parquet floor. As the cluster gradually advanced, amoeba-like, the director of MTV’s Rock the Vote, which was hosting the event, introduced Paul to an audience of perhaps five hundred juniors and seniors, which is to say all of Valley High’s new or soon-to-be-eligible voters. It was a good crowd. Michele Bachmann, who opened the morning’s program, had been greeted enthusiastically (“Who here wants to make a lot of money?” she shouted), while Mitt Romney’s four tall, handsome sons garnered polite attention. But when Paul finally reached the microphone, the applause was thunderous and sustained.
Paul, who is 76 and finally beginning to look a bit frail after some 35 years as a standard-bearer for the libertarian wing of the Republican party, quickly turned philosophical, musing about his recent surge in popularity with the millennial generation. “I don’t know the exact reason for it,” he told the students. “I defend the Constitution constantly in Washington, and that’s very appealing to young people. Sometimes the two parties mesh together, and it’s not too infrequent that I feel obligated to vote by myself. And when [young people] see that, they say, ‘He won’t go back and forth and will always stick to principle.’ ”
Paul has run for president twice before and has given a version of this same speech hundreds of times in his career, but he had never enjoyed a moment quite like this crisp January morning in West Des Moines. After decades spent in the political wilderness, he was polling dead even with fellow front-runners Romney and Rick Santorum in the first nominating contest of a wide-open Republican primary season. He was far ahead of his much-better-known fellow Texan, Rick Perry, despite the millions the governor had spent in Iowa, and was also sure to beat