LEWISTON — Urgent message to Rep. Ron Paul: You're going to need a bigger hall.
At the Ramada Inn on Friday night, it wasn't just standing-room only. It was shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow, and that was a full hour before the presidential hopeful had arrived.
"We may have to take that wall down," local conservative activist Paul Madore said a half-hour before Paul was due to speak. "And put up some chairs."
They did remove the wall, doubling the size of the room. Still, the space was crammed full as several hundred people showed up early and a few more trickled in late. And if anything was more striking than the size of the crowd, it was the diversity of it: Men and women well past the age of retirement stood next to kids not yet old enough to vote. There were men with beards and men who had shaved and put on suits. There were women in skirts and teenagers in jeans. Parents brought their kids to hear Paul speak and a few teenagers brought dates.
The young and old came in near equal numbers and when Paul took the stage, the applause was thunderous. It went on all night. They applauded when he spoke about the national debt and income taxes. They applauded when he spoke of getting American troops off foreign soil and letting other nations fight their own battles.
When Paul spoke about matters of individual liberty, on the other hand, the clamor grew to something much greater than simple applause. It became thunderous again.
"Turnout has been great for the cause of liberty," Paul assured the room. "The freedom movement is growing by leaps and bounds."
It was what many in the crowd had come out on a rainy, slushy night to hear. They roared their approval and chanted. They pumped their fists and held up campaign signs, showing support for a candidate who embraces personal freedoms above all else.
"He wants to get us back to the Constitution — back to what made this country great," said Barry Bixby, a 53-year-old who made the drive from Hebron to hear the candidate he has supported for years. "This man brings those principles back."
"Right now, I have fears," Bixby said. "Fears of the government. With Ron Paul, I wouldn't have those fears."
The chances of Paul making it all the way to the White House are universally considered to be slight. Even so, some analysts say that being the only candidate to campaign in Maine, coupled with the passion of his supporters, could give Paul a shot at winning the Maine Republican caucus next month.
Madore, state chairman of Paul's campaign, reminded the crowd that applause is not enough. Paul's supporters have to get involved in that caucus to give the candidate a shot at victory.
"This doesn't go anywhere," Madore said, "unless we take part in that process."
If the intensity of the crowd at the Ramada Inn is any indication, Paul's supporters genuinely believe the candidate has a chance. One teenager referred to Paul as a "no-brainer" among the current pool of candidates. Others, including Bixby, draw a contrast between Paul and the others, whom they see as little more than insincere Washington drones.
"Integrity is a big thing with me," Bixby said. "I strive to keep my own and to see that in Ron Paul is comforting, to say the least. He's not motivated by money. He can't be bought."
That was a common theme of Paul's short, energetic speech: The government has taken over our lives and seems intent on getting bigger and more powerful. It passes laws that allow them to spy on private citizens. It has made it legal to imprison or even assassinate U.S. citizens without due process.
"Our problem now is that we've been so careless with the Constitution that there's not much left to it," Paul said.
The candidate's most ardent supporters are those who are tired of being told what to do and when to do it by what they see as increasingly intrusive leaders.
"You can't buy whole milk or raw milk," Madore said, "without the government's approval."
Fortunately, Paul said, more and more young people, leaders of the future, are beginning to understand what is being done to their rights. That fact is illustrated, Paul said, by the number of young people who attend his town meetings and zealously work on his campaign.
"Anybody who believes in liberty has to have a young spirit," he said.
At 53, Bixby says he has such a spirit. Much of his free time, he says, is spent online, talking about political matters with people around the world. Years of deep study and reflection led him to Paul as a favored candidate. No amount of rain and slush could have kept him away from Lewiston to hear that candidate speak.
"This," said Bixby, "is kind of like a dream for me."
Paul's visit to Lewiston was part of a two-day, six-stop tour of the state. He's the only one coming before the caucus. He was the only one to do so in 2008, too. Paul is no stranger to Maine and, he says, there's a reason for that.
"I think we have every reason to be optimistic that we can turn this around," Paul said, "because there's so much enthusiasm out there. People are deciding that we better do something. We can't just depend on the government.
"There's an intellectual revolution going on," Paul said. "And it's alive and well in Maine."