PAHRUMP, Nev. -- In a Polynesian-themed former roller rink with bright-yellow walls and fuchsia patterned carpet, Ron Paul was making his last stand.
"It's always nice to come to Nevada," the slightly built congressman said from a podium, to wild cheering. "There are a lot of people here who believe in liberty."
Paul's right about that -- the rugged Western individualists that inhabit these desolate, brush-dotted lands make a receptive audience for his suspicious-of-government, leave-me-alone pitch.
But how big an audience? Paul has staked his campaign on staging upsets in Nevada on Saturday and the caucus states that follow in the next week -- Maine, Colorado and Minnesota. It is there, he hopes, that what he calls his "irate, tireless minority" can mobilize strongly enough to defy expectations, making up in fervor what it lacks in mass and swamping the straw-poll-style precinct meetings.
If he fails, it could be the end of the road.
Already, Paul's message-based candidacy has begun to recede from the foreground of the Republican race. Never mind becoming president. If his much-vaunted organization fails to live up to the hype again -- as in Iowa, the only caucus state to date, where Paul finished a disappointing third -- Paul could find himself failing in what often seems like a more prized goal, that of getting out his message of libertarian conservatism.
Here in Nevada, where his grassroots team has been active nonstop for the last four years, Paul's team does not lack for confidence.
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"We have more IDs than Romney had votes in '08," said Paul's state chairman, Carl Bunce, meaning identified supporters who have committed to attend Saturday's caucuses across the state. He wouldn't give a precise number, but Romney's 2008 vote total in his big Nevada win was 22,649.
Nye County, home to this dusty outpost of about 35,000 souls (pronounced puh-RUMP) an hour west of Las Vegas, is Paul's friendliest turf in the state. It's home to numerous well-tolerated legal brothels, more testament to that libertarian spirit. A visit to the two brothels in the Pahrump area Friday afternoon, the Chicken Ranch and Sheri's Ranch, to see if the girls wanted to talk politics, met with polite demurrals from each place's leathery hostess, but the ladies from the Bunny Ranch, in the northern part of the state, have thrown their support behind Paul.
In 2008, Nye was the only county Paul managed to win, narrowly. He got 415 votes, or 34 percent, to Romney's 399 -- out of a little over 1,200 caucus-goers countywide. This time, his fans in Nye County are determined to outdo that result.
For months, a core group of about 40 Paulites has been meeting regularly in Pahrump and marching through town every Saturday, accompanied by a voter-registration truck bearing the legend: "FREEDOM'S LAST CHANCE: RON PAUL. REGISTER HERE." Sturdy, wood-framed Paul signs dot the landscape, without competition from any other candidate. The voter-registration truck, donated by a supporter, is a regular presence around town, often staffed by a group of members of the Red Hat Society, a social club for women over 50.
"In December, during the Christmas festival at the Pahrump Nugget [casino], we all did two-hour shifts," said 50-year-old Beth Rupp, one of the women. "There was a train ride for the kids, so we put Ron Paul balloons on the train, and of course they all wanted the balloons."
The town clerk, she said, has reported being stunned by the number of former Democrats and independents the Paulites have gotten to register as Republicans in order to caucus for Paul. The volunteers have netted 800 new registrations, according to Bunce.
To Rupp, it's clear why rural Nevadans gravitate toward Paul. "We're all liberty-loving people," she said. "We came to Pahrump because there's less government in our lives here. We want our freedom. We want our space."
As with every place Paul goes, there's no denying the Paul army's commitment and rigor. Printed signs at the roller rink pointed attendees to what used to be the Skate Zone register: "Know your precinct number. See desk staff." The cavernous space is festooned with red and blue Ron Paul balloons and homemade signs, from a 30-foot printed banner in the back to a sheet of butcher paper in front that congratulated Paul and his wife, Carol, on their 55th anniversary earlier in the week.
One fan had written neatly in green ink in the corner: "We're so grateful for your family. We love you and you've given us the courage to take our place in the patriot movement. You're always welcome by our fire and at our table. David and Aimee Vander Beck, Nevada state Assembly candidate, District 36."
It's the sort of testimonial -- you woke me up and made me want to run for office! -- you would never hear at a Mitt Romney event.
Nonetheless, the latest poll, a Public Policy Polling survey released late Thursday, showed Romney with a formidable lead in Nevada, pulling a whopping 50 percent of the vote. Newt Gingrich was second with 25 percent, and Paul was third with 15 percent.
Though about 300 people came to see Paul in Pahrump on Friday, sitting on plastic chairs set out on the former skating floor, the venue was no more than a third full. Paul's support from the young has been much noted, but this was an older crowd, with a high prevalence of handlebar mustaches and leather vests. Many reported being Paul followers and supporters for more than a decade. "I used to call his 1-800 number in Texas in the early '90s to get his weekly recorded message," said Katreen Romanoff, a 74-year-old retired teacher and artist.
As the nomination increasingly looks like Romney's to lose, Paul's support may be ebbing, leaving only this long-term base of support. They're dedicated; there just aren't enough of them. And while Romney has gone out of his way not to antagonize Paul in hopes of reeling in his supporters come November, the Paulites may have other plans.
Lately, at Paul events, a new cheer has gone up among the crowd: "Ron Paul or none at all!" At Friday's rally, its principal instigator was Sam Jones, an exuberantly mustachioed 60-year-old retired crane operator with a thin braid down his back, beneath his black Western hat with beaded band.
"It means Ron Paul for president or nobody for president," said Jones, who wore a .45 Long Colt revolver in a holster on his hip and carried a copy of the Constitution in a pocket, of the chant. If Paul does not win the nomination, he does not plan to vote, he said.
For Paul, this pervasive sentiment among his followers may be the factor most damaging to his continued quest for relevance in the GOP. If he can't bring them to the party, why should the party care about him, or regard his ragtag band of nonconformists as anything but a troublemaking nuisance?
But for Jones, there is simply no other way. No other candidate strikes him as a true constitutionalist, except maybe Gary Johnson, who is seeking the Libertarian Party nomination.
"I wouldn't vote for Mitt Romney if he was running for dogcatcher," Jones added. He spat out his judgment like a profanity: "He's wishy-washy."