Kyle Webster

How did a Republican Texas Congressman named Ron Paul become a darling of the Washington State Meetup scene?

It all began, oddly enough, with Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell and a stand she took against the international sex trade.

In 2004, Cantwell became a prominent voice behind the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, which was intended to fight "human trafficking"—mail-order brides and the like. This highly displeased Adam Berman, 40, of Gig Harbor, who runs LatinLoveSearch.com, which he calls "the largest free Latin-themed dating website on the internet." His site is about love connections, not human exploitation, Berman says, and it wasn't forced to go free until after Cantwell's bill passed.

The bill actually wasn't Cantwell's alone: It was introduced in the House by another Washington Democrat, Rick Larsen, and it had strong bipartisan support. But Cantwell is a big name here in Washington State, and she stuck in Berman's mind. Her anti-human-trafficking agenda involved describing people like Berman—people running pay sites that connect Americans with foreign lovers—as "international marriage brokers," and when the bill became law it imposed strict requirements on these brokers, mandating that they conduct criminal background checks on their American customers and then translate the results into the native languages of all foreign users.

The only way Berman could get around the new rules was to stop charging people to use his site, which he did, losing a huge amount of money in the process.

As Berman was fuming about what Cantwell had done to his business, he noticed that Ron Paul, a Republican Congressman from Texas, had voted against the bill. Paul, a physician, has earned the nickname "Dr. No" because of his refusal to support any bill that he feels isn't constitutional, and apparently Paul felt Cantwell's "human trafficking" law fell short. When Dr. No jumped into the presidential race this year, Berman, who has never been active in politics before, decided to do all he could to support the guy.

"He's just against the federal government having so much control," Berman told me. "He's hitting home with people who are frustrated with what's going on."

For a web-savvy character like Berman, getting behind Paul meant starting a group on Meetup.com for Paul supporters in Washington. He now heads three groups—in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue—with more than 300 members between them. That's almost as many Meetup supporters as Barack Obama has in this state, and more Washington Meetup members than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and John McCain combined.

The online traction Paul is getting here mirrors a national phenomenon. Thanks to his iconoclastic showing in the Republican debates—where he's been the only candidate to speak forcefully against the Iraq war and to come out clearly in favor of fiscal conservatism, limited government, and hands-off social policy—Paul's candidacy is exploding online, bringing him more total Meetup groups nationwide than any other presidential candidate.

Does Meetup membership really matter? If you ask Howard Dean, the answer is yes. It was through Meetup that Dean's surprise internet support began to take off in Washington and around the country in 2003, the year that the internet first emerged as a platform for launching nonmainstream candidates into mainstream viability. And as a gauge of potential online donors, Paul's Meetup numbers are huge; there are rumors that he may have pulled in $4 million online during the most recent fund-raising quarter.

Paul's actual fundraising numbers for the quarter won't be released until July 15, but if the rumors prove true he will vault from being an entertaining Republican asterisk to... well, being an entertaining Republican asterisk with a good chunk of cash and a lot of online supporters.

As Dean showed, that doesn't necessarily transform a person into a winning candidate. But here in Washington, the Paul Meetup contingent is optimistic. Berman, the local Meetup leader, was at a Round Table Pizza in Tacoma on July 2 communing with Paul supporters. The next day another Meetup group gathered in the food court of the Crossroads Mall in Bellevue. And Berman is planning a huge Ron Paul presence at Hempfest. (Paul has opposed federal raids on medical-marijuana operations in states that allow medical marijuana, based on states' rights principles.)

Paul's candidacy, Berman says, "is growing like wildfire" because of "a crossover message that's able to escape the party line." Paul himself likes to put it this way: "Freedom is popular." In independent-minded Washington State, it's no surprise that this message would be appealing to antiwar lefties, libertarians, and frustrated conservatives alike—people who applaud Paul's votes against the Iraq war, against the PATRIOT Act, against gun control, and against raising taxes.

"The guy's definitely a phenomenon that most people haven't seen," Berman says. recommended