Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas… (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Getty…)
COLLEGE PARK — — Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul stormed through the University of Maryland on Wednesday, delivering his trademark libertarian message of noninterventionism and hands-off government to a wildly enthusiastic crowd of students who chanted his name.
Paul told the 1,780 students who packed Ritchie Coliseum on the College Park campus that the government should get out of Afghanistan, repeal the Patriot Act, legalize marijuana and end the Selective Service system — ideas that repeatedly brought the students to their feet.
"We've gone a long way from the principles that we held dear," said Paul, who criticized the government for about an hour on issues as varied as military spending and regulations on raw milk. "This is not what America is supposed to be."
A line of students ran for several blocks outside the coliseum, and many were turned away once the facility filled up. The size of the crowd was similar to the one President Barack Obama drew here last summer when he spoke in the middle of the debate over raising the nation's debt.
Paul, a Texas congressman, lags significantly behind the other Republican candidates in terms of delegates — he has never won a state primary — but he has nevertheless drawn huge and energetic crowds at a series of events on college campuses. The Paul campaign, and many of its supporters, reject the delegate estimates that put him in last place.
Sam Franklin, a 20-year-old freshman studying computer science, said it was Paul's foreign policy platform that appeals to him most. Franklin grabbed a seat near the back of the coliseum and, like many in the crowd, was wearing a Paul T-shirt.
"We don't need to spend all this money that we spend on our foreign wars when we can barely afford to take care of our residents at home," said Franklin, a Perry Hall native, who heard about the Paul event through a social-media site.
In some respects, Paul's emphasis on organizing young voters is similar to the approach Democrats took in 2008 to elect Obama. But unlike the president, Paul's campaign has failed to translate the crowds at rallies into votes in elections.
Donald F. Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, speculated that Paul has appealed to younger voters in part because of his libertarianism and "take no prisoners" rhetorical style. But the question, Kettl said, is whether Paul is seen as something of a novelty candidate or whether his campaign is tapping into a more fundamental shift in the attitudes of young voters.
"Perhaps the single most fascinating aspect to this entire campaign so far is the cross-generational lure that Ron Paul has," Kettl said. "This sense that smaller government would be better ... that's a message that's just resonating incredibly well with young voters."
Paul is the latest Republican candidate to visit Maryland ahead of the state's primary Tuesday, a rare display of national politics in a state that typically votes too late to matter in selecting a nominee. Front-runner Mitt Romney campaigned in Arbutus last week, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stumped in Annapolis and Salisbury on Tuesday.
In part because of his support from students, Paul appears to have a better organization in the state than some other candidates. He has raised more money for his campaign from Maryland than every candidate but Romney.
In order to secure any of the state's 37 delegates, Paul would need to win at least one of eight congressional districts in Maryland.
At least some of the students who turned out to listen to Paul came for the spectacle of a presidential candidate itself. Rachael Gala, a 19-year-old freshman, said she was impressed that Paul made the University of Maryland a stop on his campaign. The New Jersey native described herself as an independent.
"It's not so often that someone this powerful comes to our school," she said.