WASHINGTON -- Of all the little fish swimming beneath the currents of the major candidates in this presidential campaign season, none are making waves as surprising as those kicked up by Rep. Ron Paul.
The Texas Republican, who embraces a libertarian point of view, has been riding an unimpressive 2 percent in the polls, but if there were an election for the president of cyberspace, he'd probably win.
Dr. Paul's supporters are an enthusiastic bunch. They flood online polls such as the unscientific survey to which ABC News invited viewers after the Republican debate broadcast Sunday. Yet, you could barely find the Texas doctor in the network's after-debate coverage, despite the vigorous applause he ignited with his call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Dr. Paul's people smell a rat. In endless e-mailings and phone calls to talk shows, they blame an insidious conspiracy to muzzle the "truth."
Indeed, you might think the mainstream media would pay more respect to a guy who ended up the recent fundraising quarter with more cash on hand than Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and leading maverick of the 2000 race.
In fact, according to news reports, Dr. Paul showed more cash on hand than five other second-tier Republican candidates and one Democrat, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
So why, I am often asked, doesn't Dr. Paul get more coverage? The short answer is the Catch-22 trap of "winnability." As news media allocate precious time and space, our attention gravitates toward those who have a prayer of winning. And, of course, without coverage, one's chances of winning are even worse.
Yet, like other mavericks as varied as John Anderson, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, Dr. Paul appears to be turning on a segment of the electorate that usually seems to lie dormant. In his case, a lot of these people live online.
Judging by my contacts with Paul promoters in person and in my e-mail box, they seem to be largely young, male, independent-minded, leave-us-alone libertarians who like Dr. Paul's tiny-government agenda.
Which leads to another reason why I think Dr. Paul faces trouble in moving his campaign to the next level of public attention: organization. Organizing libertarians, by their very nature, is about as easy as herding cats. Angry cats.
When I asked Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, who specializes in monitoring polls, he told me his data indicate I wasn't far off, although Dr. Paul's portion of respondents makes up a small sample of Republicans. "The only thing you can say with certainty is that he gets more positive response with independents who say they lean Republican than he does with those who declare themselves to be Republicans."
The latest Pew poll showed Dr. Paul rising to 2 percent among Republicans, from zero in April, Mr. Kohut said, but among GOP-leaning independents he surged to 9 percent "as their first or second choice."
Still, Dr. Paul's biggest challenge as an independent-minded libertarian is electability in a party heavily dominated by loyal partisans, social conservatives and supporters of President Bush's Iraq policy.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kohut sees an opening on the war issue, although probably not for Dr. Paul. "There's a defensiveness about Iraq among Republicans," he said. "Many of them say they want a different approach."
If so, Dr. Paul may be preparing the way for another candidate who can fire up disenchanted conservatives on the Internet while also offering new ideas on Iraq, the terrorist threat and other urgent issues.
That prospect should look inviting to potential candidates waiting in the wings, like Vice President Al Gore on the Democratic side or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among the Republicans. They know the Internet. It remains to be seen how well they can herd cats.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.