KEENE, N.H. -- The oldest candidate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination gets treated like a rock star by his youngest supporters.
Ron Paul, 76, was ranked third overall by voters in the latest Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, with support from 12 percent of likely Republican voters. But he came in first among GOP voters ages 18 to 34, with 32 percent of the vote, topping former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by two percentage points.
Paul also received the highest positive ratings from young Republicans: 56 percent view him favorably, 3 percentage points higher than any other candidate.
To them, he's the most likely to stand by an unpopular belief (29 percentage points above closest rival Newt Gingrich).
Nationally, Paul has long led the Republican field among young voters. In an August Gallup poll, he came in first among voters 18 to 29 years old with 29 percent.
His campaign is trying to harness that enthusiastic support, recruiting young people from across the country.
Paul claimed at a recent campaign event that he'll do even better on primary day because his many young supporters don't have landlines to receive calls from pollsters, or aren't registered Republicans, and so aren't included in many surveys.
That's too optimistic, said UNH Survey Center director Andrew Smith.
"Young voters tend not to pay very much attention," Smith said, until "they get that first steady job, they get married, have kids, have a house."
Just more than half of voters ages 18 to 29 voted in the 2008 election, up from the historic low turnout years of 1996 and 2000, but lower than the 67 percent of Americans over 30 who voted, according to the University of Maryland-based Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
It found young Republicans who vote this year are likely to choose a candidate based on economic policy: 63 percent of respondents said "jobs and the economy" is the most important issue.
Paul's young supporters, on the other hand, say they first got involved in politics as anti-war protesters, self-described "typical Second Amendment Republicans," or marijuana legalization activists.
But where they began doesn't matter, they say. All roads lead to Ron Paul because there is only one issue in this election, they said: freedom.
Naomi Gilbert, a 27-year-old Wisconsin native living in Manchester, N.H., said she grew up jostled between a Democratic mother and Republican father. To her, they embodied two different types of authoritarianism.
When she saw a Libertarian Party ad in the Chicago subway advocating for the legalization of marijuana, "my jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe somebody saw things the way I saw them," she said.
She found she agreed with Paul on more than just the war on drugs.
"I first got into it because of the social issues, but you start to see how it's connected with economics," she said.
Four years ago, Joshua Holmes, 25, didn't vote in the presidential election because his absentee ballot got lost on the way to his Army base in Iraq.
He had grown up as a truck-driving, deer-hunting, church-going Republican like his dad. Gun rights were the most important issue to him in deciding how to vote until he went to Iraq, he said.
"I did not understand foreign policy. I was in high school on 9/11, and I was ready to believe whatever they told me about why this terrible thing would happen," he said.
Now he works the Veterans for Paul booth at events.
Paul's young supporters are enthusiastic, but relying on the population least likely to vote is not a safe bet for winning an election, Smith said.
"He has not struck a chord with any group except Libertarians, the same group he was popular with in 2008," Smith said.
In that primary, Paul placed second among young New Hampshire voters with 19 percent, but finished fifth overall.
(Contact Sarah Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)