Thousands of college students enthusiastically gathered on the UW-Madison campus Thursday; not for a concert or festival, but to listen to a 76-year-old grandfather lecture them on the need to maintain a budget.
No, this is not an April Fool's joke. This is the Ron Paul campaign for president, and as strange as it sounds, the septuagenarian politician is a rock star to a demographic that usually prefers, um, actual rock stars.
The Republican U.S. representative from Texas was in Madison Thursday to stir up support for Wisconsin's April 3 presidential primary. It was one of 30 campuses he has visited for the campaign.
The night is expected to be a big GOP showdown between former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and presumptive nominee Gov. Mitt Romney. But to the more than 3,000 boisterous supporters at the Memorial Union Terrace on Thursday, the only candidate worth voting for is Paul, a civil libertarian running on a collection of issues that seem tailormade to appeal to centrists — and college students.
"He is liberal on social issues and he opposes the war," said Larry Sabato, a national political expert and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The problem is, his issues are not exactly the ones that can win a Republican primary."
On Thursday Paul's speech hit all of the high notes of his candidacy. He discussed his desire to balance the federal budget, eliminate the Federal Reserve and bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You are inheriting a mess," Paul said. "You have a debt to deal with. You have perpetual wars."
The representative's speech was interrupted several times by cheers from the crowd, a standing-room only group of mostly students, with some older loyalists thrown in for good measure.
It was not exactly a Republican crowd, though the GOP was well represented. But with a platform that goes from fiscal conservatism to liberal drug policies, Paul also attracts a fair amount of crossover voters.
He has earned a reputation for what many term his "intellectual purity" or what Paul spokesman Gary Howard terms the representative's "authenticity."
In other words, Paul tends to stand by many of his ideas, even when he might catch heat for it. For example, Paul supports privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration and eliminating nutritional programs for women and children at the Department of Agriculture.
"There is a certain consistency and genuineness that comes through with him," said Joe Diedrich, a 20-year-old UW-Madison junior and vice president of the local chapter of Youth for Ron Paul.
There have been controversies. Paul walked out of a CNN interview in December when they questioned him about racially insensitive comments that were found in a newsletter he helped produce and circulate in the 1970s.
But he has managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states (something Newt Gingrich hasn't been able to do) and has raised more money than all the other GOP candidates, save Romney. According to the latest numbers, Romney has raised $74 million. Paul has raised $34 million.
And his appeal with young people is undeniable. In Virginia's March 6 primary, Paul won among voters ages 17-29 with 62 percent and 60 percent among ages 30-44. This mirrored exit polls from earlier events. Pollsters in New Hampshire and Iowa found Paul drew 46 percent of under-30 voters in New Hampshire, beating Romney by a full 20 percentage points. He received 48 percent of the youth vote in Iowa, 12 points higher than Romney and Santorum combined.
But so far Paul's best finish has been second, in seven primaries, and he remains mired in fourth place in delegates. Some statistics seem to show that his young supporters do not vote in large enough numbers to tip the scale in his favor.
For example, more than 4,000 students attended a Feb. 27 Paul rally at Michigan State University. But the next day, at polling places surrounding the campus, Paul received only 3,128 votes. He finished third.
But none of that matters to his supporters, who exhibit the kind of passion that would make Romney envious.
"I think it is his stand on personal freedoms, like marriage and drugs, that appeal to people most," said Aaron McEvoy, 26, a UW-Madison graduate student. "That really resonates with the younger voter."