The GOP candidate who has consistently proven to be a favorite among social media users was among the top subjects on blogs and YouTube last week, triggering a debate about his politics and policies.

For the week of January 2-6, stories about the presidential campaign, most prominently featuring Rep. Ron Paul, constituted the No. 4 subject on blogs, according to PEJ’s New Media Index. The second most-viewed news video on YouTube was also related to his campaign.

The results of the Iowa caucuses-where Paul finished third-and an opinion piece claiming Paul’s libertarian beliefs present a challenge to liberals led to complex conversations on different sides of the  political divide.

Some of those bloggers criticized the mainstream media for not devoting adequate attention to the Paul campaign, a fairly common view of Paul supporters. A PEJ analysis of the last six months of campaign coverage has found that the Texas Congressman received less news coverage than every GOP candidate other than Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. He was a significant presence in just 5% of the campaign stories. (A candidate is a significant presence if at least 25% of the story is about that person.)

But online, the story is different. On blogs, Twitter and YouTube, Paul’s supporters are visible, passionate and active.

Indeed, a recent PEJ study found that from May through November, Paul received significantly more positive support on blogs than any of the other presidential candidates-47% of the blog statements about him were positive, compared with 15% negative and 38% neutral.

A separate PEJ analysis found that he also received the most flattering assessments of any candidate on Twitter in the past six months, at 54% positive, 17% negative and 28% neutral.

Thus far in the 2012 campaign, it seems clear that Paul, and his libertarian message, have struck a chord in the social media universe.

Iowa Caucuses

Supporters of Paul disagreed over how to evaluate his third place finish, at 21% of the vote, in the January 3 Iowa caucuses. Some saw the results as hopeful. (Paul finished second, attracting 23% of the vote, in the January 10 New Hampshire primary.)

“All things considered, Ron Paul did amazing,” pronounced Eric W. at The Real Effect. “When you factor in his complete lack of media coverage and backstabbing by the GOP, his results are all that much more encouraging.”

“Don’t listen to TV’s talking heads’ assessments of Ron Paul, check his record and his principles,” implored David McElroy at Only Way. “He’ll help us to get honest gold and silver, peace and freedom! Paul can win! Vote for yourself. Vote Ron Paul for truth, justice, and liberty for all!”

“The MAIN thing to take away from this is that RON PAUL IS ELECTABLE!!!” cheered TommyPaine, a commenter at Daily Paul. “As the campaign moves forward, more and more people will hear the Ron Paul message, see more debates, and become aware that ONLY Ron Paul is likely to BEAT Obama in the GENERAL ELECTION!”

Others hoping for an outright victory were less sanguine about the results.

“Certainly it’s a disappointment,” declared Tom Woods, Jr. “Some people counter that what matters are the delegates, but in my opinion what actually matters right now is momentum, and an Iowa victory would have been great in that department.”

Regardless of their reaction, however, an article in Business Insider gave his followers hope and drew a lot of attention.

According to the story entitled “Ron Paul May Have Secretly Won the Iowa Caucuses,” part of the campaign’s plan was to not only win votes, but also to make sure that Paul supporters stuck around after the vote in order to be selected as county delegates, a strategy that might enable Paul to earn additional delegates heading into the Republican National Convention. That generated praise for the campaign’s detailed planning.

“The gist is that the Paul people are very organized and made sure that their supporters stuck around after the initial counts to run for delegates to the county conventions,” explained Seth at Enik Rising. “The naive campaign treats a caucus like a primary and leaves as soon as the voting is done. The smart campaign realizes that the caucus is just the first step in the selection of delegates and sticks around to try to control the post-caucus selections.”

“We could conceivably, then, end up with an unknown but fairly sizable number of Paul delegates…in Tampa based on the rules in the various states,” suggested Frontloading HQ. “Romney in that scenario wins the nomination but the Paul folks become increasingly likely to hold some sway over some planks in the platform.”

Ron Paul as a Challenge to Liberals

Liberal bloggers, on the other hand, focused on Paul for a different reason. On December 29, Matt Stoller, a former Senior Policy Advisor to Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, wrote a piece on the blog Naked Capitalism that sparked a philosophical debate over the tenets of liberalism.

According to Stoller, Paul represented a challenge to liberals because some of his beliefs, such as the opposition to American intervention abroad and opposition to the Federal Reserve, are progressive ideas that liberals should favor. Instead, he claims, most liberals support policies that go against these traditional liberal notions.

A few prominent liberals backed Stoller.

“Paul’s candidacy forces those truths about the Democratic Party to be confronted,” agreed Glenn Greenwald at Salon. “He forces into the mainstream political discourse vital ideas that are otherwise completely excluded given that they are at odds with the bipartisan consensus.”

Most left-wing bloggers, however, rejected Stoller’s argument regarding libertarianism.

“Stoller’s post is an incoherent mess,” wrote David Atkins at Common Dreams. “Liberalism is and has always been about intervention. It is the opposite of libertarianism, and always has been…Ron Paul is a detestable creature who presents no challenge at all to liberal orthodoxy properly understood.”

“This progressive, at least, isn’t confused by the Ron Pauls of the world,” concluded Wickersham’s Conscience. “Libertarianism is a doctrine for a world that hasn’t existed since industrialization. It’s premised on fantasies and backed by folks with serious denial issues.”

Some on the left thought the debate was missing the more important point.

“If you’re a single-issue voter who only cares about non-interventionism, then Ron Paul STILL isn’t your guy. Why? Because Ron Paul isn’t a singe-issue candidate,” argued Bob Cesca. “He wants to do a lot of terrible things to you… So snap the hell out of your idealistic, tunnel-vision stupor and wise up.”*

CNN Censorship?

Ron Paul was also a prominent presence on YouTube last week as the second most-watched news video featured a cable malfunction that left his supporters crying foul.

On the day of the January 3 Iowa caucuses, CNN reporter Dana Bash was