Rand Paul has finished his speech to CPAC and is avoiding the crowds for a couple of minutes. Outside of a small media suite, where he's taking questions, there are foreign TV cameras, college kids wearing stickers from Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty, and men holding folders of glossy photos that they want signed. They are kept at bay by security officers who, they will learn, are guarding Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Paul tells reporters what he thinks about House Republicans proposing deeper budget cuts than they were proposing a week ago.
"Good!" he says. "Maybe I'm having some impact up here!"
CNN asks Paul what he thought when Donald Trump, who had made a surprise appearance at the conference, said his father Ron Paul couldn't win the presidency.
"I think his chances are less than my father's," he says.
He slips out of the room, heads to a car, and answers a question about his proposal to cut basically all foreign aid. Does the turmoil in Egypt suggest that foreign aid doesn't work?
"I read an article in the Wall Street Journal," says Paul, "which I thought was pretty good, about how we turn on a dime from being best friends with people to saying they're autocrats who're not allowing freedom of speech. That may well be true, but it seemed like a little bit of a contradiction. We're all for Mubarak, and a day later we're not."
He is close to the car now, finishing the thought, and he's interrupted.
"Senator Paul, can you sign my baseball?"
"I can't right now," says Paul.
"But I've been waiting here!"
"He doesn't play baseball," says Paul's press secretary. "Why would he sign a baseball?"
"It's what I collect," says the fan. He says his name is Adam. Paul signs his baseball.
Four years ago, Rand Paul was helping out his father on a presidential campaign that was not taken very seriously. This was fair, in horse-race terms. Ron Paul seemed like the sort of candidate who runs, makes a statement, introduces an issue, and fades away. The issues were abolishing the Federal Reserve, ending both wars in Central Asia, abolishing the entitlement state, and ending the war on drugs. No Republican candidate adopted any of these issues. Paul's supporters, younger and rowdier and more akin to quoting Murray Rothbard than other Republicans, were grudgingly accepted.
Fast forward to CPAC 2011. The economic portions of Ron Paul's agenda are no longer controversial. Rand Paul is a U.S. senator who can command media attention and confused sports fans.
"It's not just that Rand is a senator," says William Thompson, a Georgia activist attending with Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty—the group he set up after shutting down his 2008 presidential bid. "He's one of the senators everyone knows. If you ask somebody who doesn't follow politics to name a politician, they might name him."
This is incredible for the CPAC supporters of Paul and Paul who've been coming for years. In 2008, Paul didn't have a booth in the exhibition hall; his fans occupied the one that Mitt Romney abandoned after dropping out of the race. In 2011, they have paid for booths that occupy most of a long row of the hall. They offer copies of Young American Revolution magazine, the official publication of Ron Paul's youth group, and bumper stickers that decry "George W. Obama" alongside ones that say "We Used To Hunt Communists. Now We Elect Them."
Paul and Paul's fans are perhaps the only people in American politics right now who are head over heels in love with their politicians. President Obama's supporters used to have enthusiasm like this, but it's tempered. He's had to disappoint them by governing the country.
The Pauls' adherents can't be disappointed. They got this far, didn't they? And they are unavoidable at CPAC, aren't they? According to Ron Paul's camp, his organization spent about $100,000 on discounted tickets (students could attend for $15 through Campaign for Liberty) and booths. More than 1,000 people here are Paul supporters.
This annoys CPAC organizers, for two reasons. First: Paul's supporters have all the lungs and confidence of fourth-century Christians overwhelming the pagans. They boo loudly and interrupt the "war criminals" and "neocons" that the rest of the crowd spent the last decade venerating. "I led the walkout of Rumsfeld!" claims Ian Saggese, a student at the University of Scranton who got a $15 ticket. (He is wearing a Ron Paul 2012 button.) "I was the first one to shout, 'RON PAUL!' " He describes his politics: "I'm more of a market anarchist than a libertarian, but I know that's not going to happen."
The other annoyance for CPAC brass: The crush of Paul supporters has rendered useless the event's straw poll, once a pretty good barometer to find out who conservatives backed for president. Last year, the first year that Paul's forces really shelled out for CPAC, he won the poll with a 31 percent plurality, nine points ahead of the second-place Mitt Romney. Reporters have already discounted an expected Paul victory tomorrow.
Ron Paul might run for president in 2012. (During his big speech here, an adviser explained to me that his odd reference to a theoretical 10 percent tax rate was "something we've talked about for the platform.") But Rand's celebrity might be even more important to the redefinition of the GOP that's very clearly under way. And his ideas, like his father's, come out of a movement that gives conservatives an intellectual explanation for the endless financial crisis. The crisis was caused by unsound money. The first step to ending the crisis will be a brutal course change and deep benefit cuts.
"I think we need to default on our debt with China," says Calum Pasuqua, talking about the Pauls' ideas with a few new friends. "It's going to be painful, but it's going to happen one way or another."
The many events hosted by the Campaign for Liberty reinforce this. They're reinforcing theories that have leapt from Pauls' obsessions into frequent Fox News topics. But that's the intro-level stuff. This is the hard stuff. Early on Thursday, an overflowing room is given over to Tom Woods, a paleoconservative scholar who helped Ron Paul write his books and who'd subsequently seen his own books become best-sellers.
"I want to talk about the impossible fiscal situation of the government," says Woods. "It can't be fixed. It is going to have to renege on its promises. But as long as we're facing massive cuts that have to come, one way or another, let's go back, then, and re-evaluate all these claims about government we got when we were in the sixth grade." He starts to lay out a thought experiment: What if we look at the government as obviously destructive instead of obviously supportive?
"This," he says, "makes the coming fiscal collapse an opportunity to be embraced."
At another event later in the evening, Woods takes a stage with both Pauls and Jack Hunter, a radio host who helped write Rand's upcoming book (working title: The Tea Party Comes to Washington.). Some of the crowd has been warmed up by an animated film, The American Dream, all about the dangers and abuses of central banking. (A staffer warns me that it's "pretty fringe.") Members of the crowd are more interested in a rare chat among four of their heroes.
"We're part of that very vocal minority that says, we want better," says Rand Paul. "Maybe it's in 2012 we get to decide who the nominee is."
Several members of the audience stand up with signs that say "Ron Paul 2012—Take a Stand." Hunter asks Ron Paul if he's surprised at how resilient his supporters are.
"It's been more than I ever could have anticipated," he says. "I used to think, maybe I'd serve in Congress, then I'd leave, and no one would remember I was ever there."