If you think speeches attacking the U.S. Federal Reserve couldn't excite a Friday night crowd on a college campus, think again.

About 2,000 people -- students and older adults who were in the majority -- filled Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota to cheer libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, as he joined Rep. Michele Bachmann to preach the gospel of a less powerful federal government.

Before Bachmann, R-Minn., introduced Paul, she hailed legislation of his that would require a detailed audit of the Fed. The crowd jumped to its feet and roared approval.

When she described the Fed's actions helping the banking industry as "shrouded in secrecy," one man jumped up and yelled, "Ponzi scheme!"

Paul came onstage to a standing ovation, and he quickly denounced the government's actions in dealing with the financial crisis. He also touched on themes popular with advocates of less government. He criticized gun control and deplored government initiatives to restrict smoking. He said U.S. foreign policy could lead to another military draft.

"We ought to have a right to keep what we earn, which means there would be no income tax," he said, to hearty applause.

While Bachmann also received loud applause, it was a crowd that came mostly to hear Paul, and it stood often and held signs that read, "Liberate America, Say No To Socialism."

A moderator took written questions after Paul's speech. When one asked why Paul opposed socialism, saying it's worked for European countries, it triggered hoots and laughs.

Paul said his Fed audit bill is written to "get the books open," but added that it could lead to the Fed being eliminated.

Paul also espoused positions not always favored by other GOP conservatives. He criticized the use of hidden surveillance cameras to crack down on crime, referring to it as a violation of civil liberties.

Unlike other town hall forums, health care took a back seat to monetary policy. But Paul said health care is not a right. "The government has no authority to give you stuff," he said.

Shortly before the forum, one spectator explained why he was there: "I came to see Representative Paul because I'm a great fan of his," said Venka Narayanan, an engineering graduate student at the U. "Both the left and the right extremes hate him equally." He explained later that Paul alienates some with his conservative positions, while others fault his stance opposing all U.S. military bases overseas.

Invited to co-host

It was Bachmann who invited Paul to co-host a town meeting.

"Ron agreed -- if it was held in Minneapolis on the university, because he has a strong following with college students, young people," said Chris Huxtable, president of the U's chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, supporters of Paul.

"Young Americans for Liberty chose the University of Minnesota for the event," Bachmann spokeswoman Rachel Horn said. "There was no ultimatum."

The co-hosts' partnership is rooted in the Paul legislation calling for a detailed audit of the Federal Reserve. The proposal comes as the Fed, which operates with a degree of secrecy, has taken bold steps to tackle the nation's financial crisis. Paul's measure has broad bipartisan support from two-thirds of the U.S. House.

But Paul fans know that these two Republicans don't always see eye-to-eye.

"Although Michele is in the same boat with monetary policy as Ron, she is a little bit more of the establishment," Huxtable said. "She is definitely nowhere near having the libertarian views that Ron does."

On a currently hot issue, U.S. foreign policy, Bachmann issued a statement saying that she believes in "the mission of our men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan."

In contrast, Paul not only wants to bring troops home from Afghanistan, but also from Iraq, Germany and other overseas bases "and concentrate on mending badly damaged relationships around the world."

A different kind of meeting

Although health care reform wasn't at the heart of this forum, the issue wasn't far away. Beforehand, a woman holding a champagne glass outside the auditorium held a sign that read "health care for profit not for people"

She was part of a satirical group, Billionaires for Wealthcare, which provided some street theater, posing as insurance CEOs and others exulting over profits they made from the health care system.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210