Polls haven't been friendly to Democrat Mike Gravel and Republican Ron Paul, but their against-the-grain messages and everyman personas...

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PORTLAND — One is a Democrat, the other a Republican. They’ve never met but have much in common: Both wear dark suits and sneakers, for one. Neither has a lot of money. Both are running for president.

Mike Gravel and Ron Paul. Mike and Ron. Their names, sharing space at the bottom of the polls, seem increasingly linked. Each came out swinging in the debates and scored points for candor and quirkiness and, in Gravel’s case, crankiness. The oldest of the declared candidates, Gravel, 77, and Paul, 71, have become the campaign’s upstarts. They have helped draw an audience that otherwise might not have tuned in to the earliest-starting primary season in U.S. history.

So who are these guys? Can two old men in rubber shoes win their parties’ nomination to be leader of the free world?

Mike Gravel

The former Alaska senator has just arrived in Portland on a red-eye flight from Indianapolis.

He rode economy in a middle seat in row 25, landed in the City of Roses after 2 a.m., grabbed some sleep and strolled into the hotel restaurant just past 11 a.m. — the cutoff time for breakfast.

“Would there be any chance you could manage one more breakfast?” Gravel asks the gum-chewing hostess. “I’m sorry,” she begins. Someone whispers to her that this man is running for president. He’s important.

The hostess looks the candidate over. Gravel smiles at her like a man to a favorite grandchild. Was this the same person whom commentators, after the first debate, called cantankerous?

He wears the obligatory uniform of male presidential hopefuls, dark suit and tie, and looks top to bottom like a decent fellow, with thinning, white hair and rimless spectacles. The hostess glances at his shoes: black strap-on Velcro walkers.

She sighs. “This way,” she says.

He orders eggs, hash browns and toast with honey. He talks about his flight. “My feet were hurting so bad I couldn’t sleep,” he says. His voice, coincidentally, sounds gravelly. Gravel (pronounced gruh-VELL, as in his old campaign slogan, “Give Hell, Gravel!”) suffers from neuropathy and chronic back pain, so traveling can be agony. Meditation helps. In-flight movies, too.

During the meal, a supporter, Deborah Petri, 38, who has driven down from Tacoma, Wash., to meet him, approaches to shake his hand. “You’re my hero,” Petri tells the candidate. “I love you.”

She, like many other supporters, loves him despite his deficits — or perhaps because of them. His numbers in most polls remain at less than 1 percent. Broke, jobless and politically marginalized, Gravel can’t help but relate to the struggling masses. He’s one of them.

After a dozen years in the Senate, Gravel lost his seat in 1981 and disappeared from public life — until April 2006, when he became the first Democrat to declare his run at the presidency.

“Our chances of winning are remote,” he says between bites of toast. “But you never know. Lightning could strike.”

During the first Democratic debate this spring, Gravel scored laughs and stole the show with his old-coot routine. He said the front-runners “frighten” him with their unwillingness to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. “Tell me, Barack,” Gravel said in the most quoted line of the debate, “who do you want to nuke?”

Thus began what supporters call “Gravelmania.”

“I couldn’t believe he just turned to the other candidates and asked them a serious question,” says Nick Urban, 24, a campaign volunteer from Olympia, Wash., who had driven to Portland with Petri. “It was just so surprising. He made it a real debate.”

Gravel, who claims to have “zero net worth,” began his campaign in debt and continues to struggle financially. His campaign has raised $175,000 but has spent $197,000, according to the latest figures.

No chartered planes or suited chauffeurs await him. In fact, with breakfast done, he needs a ride.

Gravel is in town on a sunny Saturday to speak at a Unitarian Universalist event exploring the relevance of the Pentagon Papers. He must be at the Oregon Convention Center in 30 minutes and has not arranged transportation.

Urban volunteers to drive.

“I get shotgun,” Gravel says.

He and his press secretary, Alex Colvin, pile into Urban’s old green Saab along with Petri, and the car speeds off.

At the convention center, the candidate encounters an old political ally, Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The two white-haired men share a private moment before Ellsberg introduces the candidate to a crowd of several thousand.

Ellsberg’s words seem to capture the abiding essence of Gravel, and Ron Paul, too, and for that matter all underdogs who face impossible odds.

“The fear of looking foolish is what keeps people in line all their lives,” Ellsberg tells the rapt audience. He glances at Gravel. “Here is a senator who is not afraid to look foolish.”

Gravel continues to generate buzz on the Internet, but no one knows whether it will translate into votes. On his Web site, one recent discussion topic began with this intriguing title: “Mike Gravel and Ron Paul as third-party Pres/Vice Pres Ticket!”

“Hey Gravel,” one post says. “Give Ron Paul a call!”

Ron Paul

In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Kansas City, Mo., the sea of people does not part for the Texas congressman, who is in town to speak at a National Right to Life Committee convention. The sea hardly stirs, in fact, as he makes his way to the hotel coffee shop.

Paul descends the escalator like he moves across the country: unrecognized except by a passionately loyal few. Like the 50-something woman wrapped in scarves who approaches the table where Paul and his campaign manager, Kent Snyder, have seated themselves.

“I want you to know I think you’re so real,” she tells Paul. “I wish I could give more.” The woman digs out a crumpled $10 bill. She hands it to him and rushes off, scarves fluttering.

“Usually they put it in an envelope,” Paul says.

Snyder snatches up the bill, because every dollar helps. It’s been predicted that serious contenders will have to raise tens of millions by the end of the year to compete. Paul, as of mid-July, had raised $3 million. Plus $10.

When supporters asked him to join the race two years ago, Paul resisted. But the supporters — many from the Libertarian pocket of the Republican base — persisted, and Paul relented, partly egged on by his frustration over the current crop of candidates. None of them, he believes, would end U.S. involvement in Iraq immediately. Paul says he would.

“Things were getting worse. More men were dying in the war, and Ron felt responsible for what was going on,” says Carol Paul, the candidate’s wife of 50 years. The couple talk on the phone two to three times a day. She makes him chocolate-chip cookies to take on the road.

Paul is the last of four Republican candidates to speak in front of the conventioneers on a hot Thursday afternoon. Afterward, half the room applauds, and the other half looks him over, seemingly unmoved.

About 500 supporters gather later in an antiquated downtown theater for a rally. It is a crowd of believers. They chant and hold banners announcing “the Ron Paul Revolution” and cheer wildly when the candidate takes the podium.

He thanks the crowd and says how great it is to be in Kansas, which raises eyebrows because he is in Missouri.

“People ask, ‘How come you’re doing so well on the Internet?’ ” Paul says. His speech is countryside-slow. “It might just be that freedom is a popular idea.” Big applause.

In 20 minutes of oration, Paul tells not a single joke. True to form, he mentions the Constitution frequently. “Almost every problem we have is because we didn’t follow the advice of the founding fathers and the Constitution.” Bigger applause. “What we want is noninterference by the government in our personal lives.” Standing ovation.

The latest CNN poll shows Paul at about 2 percent nationally among registered Republicans.

The revolution has a ways to go.