When Ron Paul announced four years ago that he was running for president, the congressman from Texas had a tough time attracting attention.
Paul -- known for his calls for a significantly limited government, opposition to the Iraq, Afghan and Libyan conflicts and his drive to get rid of the Federal Reserve -- stayed in Washington to declare his candidacy for the 2008 Republican nomination on C-Span, the cable television station devoted to government proceedings. His entry earned a one-sentence mention near the end of a Washington Post political story, and little notice elsewhere.
Last month, his venue for announcing another presidential bid was an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” -- a program with more than 4.5 million viewers. He spoke from a rally in New Hampshire, where hundreds of backers drawn to Paul’s message of shrinking government and limiting its reach cheered the 75-year-old great-grandfather.
“During the last campaign people weren’t too interested in what I was saying,” Paul said in an interview. “There’s some respect for it now.”
Paul, a former obstetrician who estimates he’s delivered about 4,000 babies, also has seen his clout grow within Congress, where during most of his 11 full terms he had little influence. This year, he ascended to the helm of the House subcommittee that oversees the Fed. Rand Paul, his son and a Tea-Party favorite who follows his father’s anti-tax, anti-debt politics, joined Paul in Washington in January as a Republican senator from Kentucky, elevating the family brand.
Although political analysts give the elder Paul little chance of emerging as President Barack Obama’s challenger, his limited-government goals echo through the Tea Party movement, the cadre of activists that helped Republicans gain control of the House in the 2010 election.
“He is one of the most long-standing advocates of a policy that is at its apex in the Republican Party,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. “He doesn’t look as much like an off-the-wall, cartoonish figure as he did in recent efforts to go national.”
For decades -- and mostly from the margins -- Paul has held fast to his Libertarian message of limited government, giving him authenticity.
His positions include a return to linking the dollar to gold. He doesn’t see a federal role in education and health care. He supports legalizing drugs, including heroin; this month he co-sponsored a bill to allow states to legalize marijuana. He urges a non-interventionist foreign policy, which is the basis for his opposition to the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
He was critical of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, saying the U.S. should have worked with Pakistan and shown more respect for international rule of law.
“He says what he believes, and he believes what he says,” said Dean Spiliotis, a New Hampshire-based political analyst. “You can’t underestimate the extent to which people appreciate that.”
Paul, an avid exerciser, gained a loyal band of followers in his 2008 campaign, including a large number of college students. His grassroots support fueled Internet donations, including a one-day $6 million haul. He raised a total of $34.5 million, more than double what former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee collected in his failed 2008 bid. And his backers even launched a Ron Paul blimp.
He’s building on that support now. “We used to have to actively lobby and push to get him on a handful of cable news shows,” said campaign aide Jesse Benton. “Now we get more than we can handle.”
At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, an annual gathering of party activists that this month featured speeches by several White House aspirants, Paul won a June 18 presidential preference straw poll. The day before, he took the stage at the event to a thundering chant of “Ron Paul” from supporters. Minutes into his speech, several hundred began shouting “Kill the Fed.”
Paul looked on with a smile. “This is wonderful; this is where we have made our greatest stride,” he said. “It’s time we not only audit our Federal Reserve, but in due time get rid of the Federal Reserve.”
The heightened appeal of his efforts was evident in 2010, when the House cleared his legislation to require audits of the central bank’s interest-rate decisions. It was Paul’s ninth attempt at passing legislation to rein in the Fed. A watered-down version of Paul’s measure was included in the financial-regulation law enacted last year, and Paul has vowed to push for greater oversight.
“Anybody who ever thought Ron Paul was a joke was not paying attention,” said Charlie Black, a veteran political strategist who advised Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. “His stature is elevated because his followers did play a big role in the Tea Party movement and the victories for Republicans in 2010.”
Paul is scheduled to return June 30 to New Hampshire, the state that conducts the nation’s first presidential primary, for two days of campaign events.
In his current campaign, Paul said, rivals no longer dismiss him.
‘Laugh or Snicker’
“In the debates last go-around, if I brought up monetary policy they literally would laugh or snicker,” he said. “I don’t think that’s there anymore because people are realizing the current system isn’t working that well.”
Still, little evidence exists that he can win any of the early primary contests, let alone the Republican nomination. Paul has rarely hit double digits in national polls of Republican-leaning voters on their presidential preferences; an aggregate of surveys by the RealClearPolitics website shows him with 6.9 percent support.
The rise of the Tea Party and a growing anti-government sentiment will probably lead to only slightly better results for Paul this year, said Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who advised Republican President George W. Bush.
“Paul is really a Libertarian, and while they are committed and passionate about Ron Paul, Libertarians represent at best about 10 percent of the vote,” McKinnon said. “He’ll stir the pot and add some entertainment at the debates. But he’s more gadfly than threat.”
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, disputes Paul’s influence on the movement. He said that while he agrees with some of Paul’s ideas, others -- such as in foreign policy - - are “just nuts.”
“This idea that Ron Paul started the Tea Party movement is revisionist history,” he said. “People say Ron Paul is the godfather of the Tea Party. No, he isn’t.”
It’s Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, who Phillips and some political analysts see as more polished and electable, should he seek the presidency.
“He’ll be a force to contend with if he has ambitions to be in the White House,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant who was political director for former President George H.W. Bush.
Until recently, the two shared an apartment in suburban Virginia, outside Washington. Rand Paul moved closer to the Senate so he wouldn’t have to fight traffic and could walk to work. Ron Paul said he prefers to be farther from the city, where he enjoys morning walks of three to four miles and 12-mile bike rides at day’s end, when his schedule allows. He also swims regularly.
“It’s my therapy,” he said. “I complain if I don’t get to do that.”
Rand Paul campaigned for his father in 2008 and will act as a surrogate again. “That’s how a lot of people got to know him,” said his father.
Ron Paul said his son has studied many of the same teachings and books on topics such as economic theory that have influenced his views. “Intellectually, it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing,” he said.
Still, the patriarch of five children, 18 grandchildren and five great grandchildren shrugs off any notion of a political dynasty in the making:
“I don’t use those terms, especially since we are trying to get rid of power in Washington.”