DES MOINES — Ron Paul’s college-aged volunteer army — a core of the powerful ground organization that is the envy of rivals — is descending on Iowa from around the nation to coax people to the state’s Republican caucuses as he seeks to pull off what only months ago seemed like an unthinkable victory here on Tuesday.
Four years after young people flocked to the state to help propel the campaign of Barack Obama, this radically different movement is embracing a 76-year-old veteran Texas congressman who is drawing supporters for his libertarian and antiwar views.
And they say they are under strict orders: To look, dress, shave, sound and behave in a way that will not jeopardize Mr. Paul’s chances. Even before flying here on their own nickel, some students said they had been instructed to cover up tattoos and told that their faces should be fresh-shaved or beards neatly trimmed, wearing only nice clothes that one described as “business casual.”
“No tats,” another volunteer, Rocco Lucente, said as he ticked off the rules after arriving at the airport Tuesday night. No liquor, no drugs and, he said, no “fraternizing in the dorms, nothing like that.”
He said the standard expected of volunteers was: “What would Ron Paul do?”
Volunteers are considered Mr. Paul’s most potent weapon beyond his vast and acerbic advertising campaign in Iowa, where the caucus results often turn on the ability of campaigns to turn out supporters. After hundreds of college volunteers arrived here this week, they were whisked to a Y.M.C.A. camp the campaign rented in Boone, an hour outside Des Moines, where some said they expected to be drilled on get-out-the-vote techniques and how to use scripts to talk to prospective caucusgoers.
Much of their efforts have been cloaked in secrecy: They said that once they arrive at the camp they are under orders not to speak to journalists or make postings on social media sites about their activities in Iowa, a provocative limitation for a movement lubricated by the effective use of the Internet. A half-dozen Paul aides declined to comment or allow a visit to volunteers. “We’re keeping our cards close to our vests,” said Jesse Benton, the national campaign chairman.
For college students together a long way from home, the mood was all business as Tuesday’s caucuses neared and they began canvassing in full force.
“There was no partying that we saw or heard,” said Dave Sherry, the camp director, who emphasized that the Y.M.C.A. was simply renting out the camp and was not aiding Mr. Paul. On Wednesday morning, he said, the few hundred students ate breakfast, had a meeting and then left the camp, saying they did not expect to be back until after 10:30 p.m.
The requirements about personal conduct seemed to be a recognition that bringing in a cadre of outsiders carries risks in Iowa, a lesson Howard Dean learned the hard way eight years ago when thousands of intense and orange-stocking-hatted volunteers from out of state apparently rubbed many Iowans the wrong way, with Mr. Dean placing third in what was the beginning of the end of his campaign.
Part of the Dean camp’s problem was that it did not know what to do with all its volunteers. But for a well-oiled organization like Mr. Paul’s, “it’s a decent strategy, since it’s such a labor-intensive process,” one rival campaign official here said. “Outside folks can be helpful.”
For the students, much of Mr. Paul’s appeal derives from civil libertarian views like ending the federal ban on marijuana and other drugs, as well as his desire to end foreign wars and his small-government credo.
Mr. Lucente, a 19-year-old from Ithaca who is a sophomore at Alfred University, said the Republican Party had been hijacked by a “social conservative war party” that had lost sight of the “idea that the government should be out of the way,” one of Mr. Paul’s abiding principles.
Mr. Lucente’s ride from the airport — along with two dozen others who arrived the same time — was on a Partridge Family-style school bus painted red, white and blue and festooned with slogans like “Pro Gun Ownership,” “Pro Homeschool,” “No Lobby $” and “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.”
Josh Plotkin, 21, an American who traveled from his job in Brazil, said Mr. Paul was the only candidate serious about shrinking the national debt and noted that his message had been consistent for decades. “You can take a speech of his from the ’80s and it’s still applicable today,” Mr. Plotkin said.
That determination and consistency also help explain his support among the young, Mr. Plotkin said. “It’s 500 college kids away from home and who are volunteering not to drink,” he said.
The college effort is critical to Mr. Paul, who is depending on a nontraditional base to bring him victory on Tuesday. In his speeches he is also careful not to dismiss Occupy Wall Street protesters — as most of his Republican rivals have — and he goes out of his way to praise young people as having a better grasp of the meaning of liberty than many lawmakers in Washington.
What remains to be seen is whether new scrutiny of racist statements in newsletters carrying Mr. Paul’s name — which he has disavowed — will complicate his support. The timing of the caucuses during the holiday break is also likely to dampen turnout from his college supporters.
And some students also question the real-life impact of Mr. Paul’s policies on programs that might affect them. One student from Grinnell asked Mr. Paul on Wednesday afternoon whether he could name something he thought government could do to help the country. Another asked about the future of the Peace Corps under a President Paul.
His answer may not have been what either had hoped for, as he cited defense and protection of currency as reasonable governmental duties but added, “Probably about 80 percent of what the federal government does is technically unconstitutional.”
—Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Newton, Iowa.