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Ron Paul is the New Howard Dean

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It is now clear that Congressman Ron Paul has the strongest Internet movement out of all the current presidential candidates. His online supporters flexed their muscles on Tuesday, raising over $4 million for the libertarian's long-shot campaign. It was a record-breaking haul -- far more than celebrity Republicans like Giuliani have raised in a day -- but it's not just about money. Paul has gingerly filled a huge political void in his party's primary while embracing ideas bubbling up from activists. He is the Howard Dean of 2008.

In the November 5th effort, activists blended anarchist history and the 2005 "V for Vendetta" movie to organize a counterculture political holiday. It's the kind of zany idea that volunteers might dream up over beers after a day of door-knocking. A fundraising campaign built on a passé film and a European terrorist sounds like it would never get off the ground, let alone earn cooperation from the official campaign. Yet like Dean in 2004, "Paul is running a loosely-controlled campaign that freely shares attention with its base, and thus benefits from all kinds of self-organizing energies from below," explains Micah Sifry, a longtime observer of web activism and third party politics (for TechPresident and The Nation).

Just as the campaign's strategy is animated by actual supporters, Paul's positions reflect the views of actual, conservative voters who have been neglected by the Republican establishment. Apart from Dean, all the major 2004 Democratic presidential candidates initially ignored the antiwar community. Likewise, today's GOP candidates support Bush on Iraq, even though 35% of Republicans do not. It's the same dynamic on the constitution -- Republicans get to choose between Romney's plans to "Double Gitmo" or Giuliani's paranoid neo-fascism. Ron Paul offers better choices. And like Dean, his biggest impact may come by nudging his clueless rivals to embrace their constituents' priorities.

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this post first appeared. Check out The Nation's Campaign Blog for more news and commentary.