INDIANA, Pa. -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fought back against calls to drop out of the presidential race by comparing herself to Rocky Balboa. Ask Rep. Ron Paul, who keeps running for the Republican nod, what fictional figure he is like and he can't come up with an answer.
It's probably Sisyphus, given his hopeless but continuing quest to push for the nomination. Among his wildly passionate fans, he's nothing short of mythical.
"This is a true American patriot, my man," said Richard McCloud, an unemployed laborer who drove two hours from Uniontown to Indiana University of Pennsylvania to see the Texas congressman and former physician. "If given a chance, he could be as great a president as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. He does what he says and says what he does."
Dr. Paul -- who was raised in Green Tree and went to the University of Pittsburgh's medical school -- remains in the Republican race even though Sen. John McCain clinched the nomination March 4. (In Ohio, Dr. Paul got 49,000 votes to Mr. McCain's 635,000.)
He blames those results largely on the mainstream media ignoring him, and says he remains in the race because of his supporters, 500 of whom packed a standing-room-only IUP auditorium.
"What kept me going ... I think it was the enthusiasm from my supporters. They just wouldn't let me go away," he told a small group of reporters.
Wendy Fazio, 50, a finance associate at an Ohio nonprofit, drove four hours to see the man. She wanted to see him in Washington, D.C., too, but couldn't get time off from work. She supports his messages on fiscal discipline and getting out of Iraq (not to mention getting rid of Selective Service).
One hears a lot about messages, in near-religious terms, when talking to the fervent admirers of the congressman. It takes a leap of faith to keep following a guy who has zero chance of winning.
Lisa Michelle, 33, a middle school Spanish teacher originally from Conneaut Lake, said she has traveled to see Dr. Paul six or seven times, and stood watching him as he was swarmed by supporters after his hour-long talk.
"The message that he brings -- about awakening the country -- is more important than who takes office [in November]. He brings people together and makes it an educational process. He brings you into the fold," she said.
Cindy Neri, a 37-year-old chiropractor from Boswell, Somerset County, switched her registration from Democrat to Republican to vote for Dr. Paul in the Pennsylvania primary, even though her April 22 vote will be all but wasted.
"He's the only candidate who ever said everything I wanted to hear," she said, shortly before getting him to sign a copy of his book "A Foreign Policy of Freedom."
"Because of him a revolution started -- he ignited a movement," she said.
Ron Paul ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in 1988 and his message is still libertarian, mixing classic Republican themes (isolationism, anti-taxes, pro-free-trade) and liberal Democratic ones (in favor of personal liberties and legalizing drugs, against federal regulation of the death penalty.)
It was probably his opposition to the Iraq war that fused supporters from both parties along with independents. Add in his opposition to the Patriot Act for its effect on civil liberties -- he got a big cheer yesterday when he pledged "to restrain government, not to restrain the people" -- and it was a sure-fire mixture for success, however limited.
Anxiety about the economy also has drawn in people. The federal government, he claims, has joined with the medical, media, business and military establishment to create a fascist state and to crack down on civil liberties.
Mr. McCloud, a former laborer, grill cook and dishwasher, describes himself as "a shoe shiner for rich Asian businessmen."
"We've got to get the federal government out of state business and out of the bedroom and our personal lives," the pony-tailed man said.
Dr. Paul said he raised about $30 million for his presidential campaign, largely by getting his message out through the Internet, especially digital videos on YouTube. Some in the crowd yesterday knew the phrases in his stump speech by heart, sensed when they were coming, and -- as if they were at a rock concert -- mouthed along to what Dr. Paul said.
Steven O'Conner, 26, from Latrobe, was "instantly hooked" by the Paul message after seeing a speech on YouTube and filmed Dr. Paul's message from the third row of the auditorium yesterday. The unemployed man, who plans to enter politics himself, watched much of it with a beatific smile on his face.
"These ideas aren't going to go away" despite the outcome of the Republican primary, he said. "This whole movement is really just beginning."
Looking down from the very back of the auditorium in a black beret, black Ray-Bans and a black leather jacket was David Longtale, 51, of Indiana.
"There are problems with racism, sexually transmitted diseases among school-age children," Mr. Longtale said. "The drug laws are archaic. It's insane to lock so many people up -- especially for marijuana. It's crazy, man, it's crazy."
Ron Paul and his people keep going on despite, or perhaps because of, what is a hopeless situation.
"If anyone's looked at what I've done for so many years, it's just sort of a steady determination," he said, when asked about his character. "I think if I should be compared to somebody, it might be called a true believer."
Timothy McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.