Blimpin’ Ain’t Easy

THE SKY, Dec. 20—We’re hovering 1,500 feet above Baltimore in a 200-foot blimp with Ron Paul’s name on it, and I’ve lost feeling in my hands. Elijah Lynn, vice president of the Ron Paul Blimp, passes around heat packets, the kind made for skiers. “Shake it,” he says. Over the past week, temperatures in the blimp have dropped to as low as 28 degrees. As the crew has learned, it’s hard out here for a blimp.

The Ron Paul Blimp launched last week in Elizabeth City, N.C,. and has since moved through Columbia, S.C., Richmond, Va., and now Baltimore, taking days off for bad weather. (You can track the blimp’s path via GPS here .) Anyone craning their neck blimpward sees one of two messages: “Who Is Ron Paul?” (an homage to Ayn Rand’s ” Who is John Galt ?”) or “Ron Paul Revolution,” with the “evol” highlighted as a backwards “love.” The guys behind the blimp now spend every day inside it, giving interviews by phone, taking turns flying (“It’s like driving a boat”), blogging the voyage using the blimp’s wireless connection, and planning the blimp’s schedule.

Of course, the “schedule” is a joke. They had originally planned to head to Iowa for the Jan. 3 caucuses. Now, they’re going south after circling New York City instead. Likewise, our flight was at first supposed to take off at 8 a.m. That time was changed last minute to 12:30 p.m. But when we arrived at the Harford Airport at noon, the airship had already left. We ended up taking the next flight. “You can’t keep to a tight schedule,” said one of the organizers. Daniel Hornal, the official “blimpographer,” agreed: “You’re on blimp time now.”

The blimp springs from the same imaginative well as the Ron Paul “money bombs,” which have raised more than  $10 million and put Paul among the Republicans’ top likely fourth-quarter fund-raisers. The project is being paid for through online donations. They’re currently just shy of $280,000, which should keep the blimp aloft through Christmas. (All told, the blimp operation costs about $350,000 a month.) Trevor Lyman, the public face of the Nov. 5 and Dec. 12 money bombs (“That wasn’t my idea,” he says) and the Ron Paul Blimp ("That was”), says he thinks they’ll raise enough money to fly through Super Tuesday.

There’s something perfectly Paulian about the blimp. It’s a stunt, in the best sense of the term—big, memorable, and utterly silly—a lot like Ron Paul’s candidacy itself, at least in the eyes of outsiders. The project isn’t affiliated with the Paul campaign—FEC regulations forbid collaboration—but it does try to preserve the spirit. “We see what they’re doing, and we try to fit their image,” Hornal says.

Some of the guys behind the blimp are relatively recent Paul converts. Hornal says he wasn’t a big Ron Paul fan before getting involved. If anything, he’s for Kucinich. * He figures that libertarianism should apply to some areas—trimming the Education Department, say, or fiscal policy—but not to others, like health care. Lynn is also new to the party: eight weeks ago, he hadn’t even heard of Ron Paul. He calls himself a “political virgin” and says he doesn’t give speeches about Paul: “I just tell people, go watch the videos.”

Some acolytes see Ron Paul as the heir to Howard Dean, tactically if not ideologically. Like Deaniacs, Paulites (or, if you prefer, -tards ) organize “meetups,” where they can hang out and chat with like-minded politicos. Dean fans also pledged online. But Paul’s clan has advanced the ball. Ideas like the money bomb and the blimp get floated on various Ron Paul forums , where they’re alternately nurtured, rejected, developed, and finally acted upon. That’s why it’s hard for one person to take all the credit. The clown car is bigger than ever, but no one person is steering.

Another aspect of the movement’s Web-based strategy is documentation. Let me rephrase that: overdocumentation. Today, every moment—every conversation, every quip, every striking vista—is being recorded. Everyone has a camera pointed at everyone else. It’s like the last scene from Reservoir Dogs , but with photographers. After three minutes chatting with the blimpographer about his political views, I realize he’s had his camera pointed at me from his lap the entire time.

After Baltimore, we head back to the airfield in Harford. Washington, D.C. is out of the question. Post-9/11, FAA regulations restrict unauthorized aircraft from flying within 15 miles from the White House. They might try to get special permission for the blimp, but so far no luck. I ask Hornal if Ron Paul would abolish airspace restrictions. “Probably in his second year,” he says.

Check back next week for a blimp video on Slate V .

* Clarification: This article overstated Hornal’s support for Dennis Kucinich. Hornal wrote in to clear this up: “I have not decided to support Kucinich’s run for president. … I am, however, philosophically close to Kucinich on some issues, like the war and health care.”

UPDATE 2:00 p.m., Dec. 26: Photo by Christopher Beam.