Three summers ago, Rep. Ron Paul, a white-haired obstetrician, shocked the political world.
The septuagenarian Texan, out of nowhere, stirred an army of youthful libertarians and disillusioned Republicans to support his long-shot presidential bid. He raised millions, rallied thousands, and spooked GOP contenders. But he did not win a primary.
Still, as he relaxes in his Capitol Hill office, Paul reflects on that wild ride with a smile. Tangling with the old guard, he acknowledges, was a bruising, nonstop battle. Same goes for organizing a nationally competitive campaign.
Yet when he recalls spotting throngs of college students, at campus after campus, toting handmade signs and railing against the Federal Reserve, he knows that, in his own way, he won something.
Paul hopes to do even better this time around. Last month, he announced that he would once again seek the GOP presidential nomination. He enters the contest as a nationally known name, a fundraising powerhouse, and most importantly, no longer a fringe figure.
“That is the difference between now and four years ago,” Paul says. “When it comes to practical politics, the face of the party has changed. Any place we go, I get invited to Republican meetings. Before, we had to have our own meetings, or we might have been excluded.
“Now we go, and I think, wow, this is really nice. I get to meet run-of-the-mill Republicans,” he chuckles. “We used to think of that group as the businessmen and the bankers, and all the establishment people that make up the Republican party. When we visit these days, we find out that they look like us.”
Beyond the pockets of Paul supporters popping up in local GOP organizations, polls show the Texan ready to rise. A Gallup survey late last month had him at 10 percent, seven points behind frontrunner Mitt Romney. A CNN poll released that same week had him at 12 percent, just three behind Romney.
Paul, however, shrugs off the numbers. He is pleased with the resonance of his message, to be sure, but he is not rabidly interested in the back-and-forth, the dishing and spinning, that usually accompanies presidential politics.
“People who work for me worry about that,” he laughs. “That not what I care about. Sure, the better the vote, the better endorsement for the policies I think are so crucial. But my job is to try to deliver a message in a better way, to develop a practical approach.”
Indeed, much of Paul’s appeal is that he keeps things loose. “There is no central political planning with this campaign,” he says. “That energizes people. We simply encourage people to get involved, and do it modestly.”
In other words, he articulates bold positions on the Fed, foreign aid, monetary policy, the drug war, and military spending, and then, it is hoped, things snowball.
Long an outsider, and a consistent critic of Republicans, Paul sees a real opportunity to catch fire. The field, he notes, remains quite unsettled, and people seem happy to hear him out.
On foreign policy, especially, Paul thinks that he can win over large swaths of primary voters. “The country is more with me now,” he argues. “The mainstream is swimming this way. Sixty to 70 percent of people, maybe even more, are saying after ten years at war, maybe it is time to try something new.”
Romney and other big-name Republicans, such as Tim Pawlenty, are not arguing for major cuts to the defense budget: Just snips, Paul laments, nothing more. Growing concern on this front, he hopes, will lead him, at the very least, to shake up the conversation.
“The times are changing,” Paul says softly, his hands clasped like a country doctor. “I always predicated that our foreign policy is going to change, that we will come home, not because I gave a great speech, but because we are broke.”
He brushes off the criticism that he can easily be cast as an irascible isolationist. “This is a powerful political issue,” he says, his finger tapping his oak desk, as he makes his case against U.S. militarism. “It looks like I care more about people here at home then I do about throwing money down these rat holes around the world, where they tend to give us more trouble than we deserve.”
“Other candidates will have to deal with this,” Paul predicts. “In that sense, I don’t think there will be any of these putdowns, like we saw last time, for political reasons. Why put me down? Why would you antagonize a large segment of the party that’s growing?”
As the competition, perhaps, adjusts to the Paul-influenced, tea-soaked grassroots, the congressman also aims to make them “squirm a little bit,” on everything from “personal privacy, to the Patriot Act, to the Fourth Amendment and groping at airports.”
“I think the country is in big trouble if we don’t shift our policies,” he says. “But replacing a conventional Democrat with a conventional Republican will not change anything. The attitude toward the Federal Reserve will stay the same, as will the attitude toward entitlements. People will still attempt to simply tinker around the edges.”
He may talk tough on the issues, but when it comes to anti-Obama rhetoric, don’t expect much. Paul says that his campaign, unlike those of the majority of GOP contenders, will not focus on lambasting the president.
In fact, Paul disdains the way many Republicans tag Obama as a “socialist” when describing the president’s politics.
“You will not hear me saying that we have to stop Obama or something like that,” he says. “Lots of Republicans will talk like that, but when it comes to using those words, they don’t come out very easily for me.”
Paul also keeps an even temperament when talking about Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, who is competing with Paul for the libertarian slice of the GOP electorate.
Johnson, like Paul, is a drug-war skeptic, a low-tax advocate, and a champion of civil liberties.
Paul does not see him as a foe. “The more the merrier,” he says. “In the narrow, political sense, I don’t think it hurts. It might make me a better candidate.”
Paul emphasizes that he is on an educational mission. “[Johnson] might appeal to a different group of libertarians,” he says. “My goals may be a little different for the long term, but that does not mean that we should be sharp political competitors.
“It is good to have a couple people up there during debates, it gives us both more credibility. During the first debate in South Carolina, when they quizzed me about drugs, he backed me up.”
As he heads to New Hampshire this weekend, and prepares for next Monday’s debate at Saint Anselm’s College, Paul will not make predictions about his chances. “Only time will tell how things will go this time,” he says.
But with his son, Rand Paul, serving in the U.S. Senate, his campaign flush with cash, and his name near the top of the polls, he must feel pretty darn good.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.