NEWTON, Iowa — Ron Paul is no longer being ignored.
Returning to campaign in Iowa on Wednesday as the king of the presidential hill — albeit barely, according to the latest average of polls here — the 12-term congressman from Texas was greeted with a swarm of press coverage and a hail of attacks from his fellow candidates.
"It does look like there are more cameras than there used to be," he chuckled as he made his first stop in Newton, surveying a standing-room-only crowd of a couple of hundred voters who packed into the Iowa Speedway media tent to hear him speak.
Mr. Paul is no stranger here. He's one of two repeat candidates from the 2008 GOP field, along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and he's been remarkably consistent in his positions throughout those four years, and even before that. The main thing that's changed, he said, is everything else.
"I've been talking about freedom for a long time. That's what motivated me to get into politics. And for many years the crowds were very small, there was little interest, but it's steadily grown," he said. "All of a sudden people are tired of the wars, they're tired of this economy, they're tired of the Federal Reserve, they're tired of Congress spending a lot of money. And they're looking for some change and I have suggested one significant change: Why don't we just follow the Constitution?"
As his government-shrinking, military-cutting, fiscal responsibility message is getting a second look by GOP voters, Mr. Paul is suddenly the talk of Iowa, holding a slight lead in the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls with less than a week to go until the Tuesday caucuses and sparking fierce debate among his fellow Republicans.
Some in the GOP say a Paul win in Iowa would diminish the caucuses, and Gov. Terry Branstad this month told Politico that it would make folks look at second and third place to determine where momentum really lies in the national race.
His opponents, too, are taking notice — and taking aim. Mr. Paul's pronouncement at the final pre-caucus debate this month that he would not use force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has provided the ammunition.
"Ron Paul would be dangerous as a president of the United States," said Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a fellow candidate who serves in Congress with Mr. Paul.
Mr. Romney, while not naming Mr. Paul specifically in a town hall in Clinton, Iowa, said it was unacceptable for Iran to gain a nuclear weapon.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this week that he couldn't vote for Mr. Paul for president.
Some analysts said it was inevitable that Mr. Paul would surge in Iowa. Every other candidate, save for former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, has risen and then fallen.
The question is whether Mr. Paul can translate his appeal into votes.
In 2008, that wasn't the case. He poured millions of dollars into Iowa but managed only a fifth-place showing with 9.9 percent of the votes cast. He placed behind Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who didn't even contest Iowa.
In later caucuses, with a narrower field, Mr. Paul did better, including taking nearly a quarter of the vote in Montana's caucuses early that February. But he never cracked the 10 percent mark in any of the primaries and scaled down his campaign March 6.
Drew Ivers, Mr. Paul's campaign chairman in Iowa in 2008 and again this year, said the last time around they had money, but $6 million of it came in a mid-December burst that didn't give them much chance to spend it strategically.
This year, the money has come in fast and steady throughout, and the campaign has what many political pundits deem the best organization in the state — a big advantage in caucuses, where turning out and keeping your voters in line is critical.
In 2008, independents and disaffected Democrats appeared to be a much higher percentage of Mr. Paul's supporters than others in the GOP primary, and they weren't as reliable as longtime mainstream Republican voters.
Mr. Ivers said the percentage of mainstream Republicans turning to Mr. Paul is "significantly higher" this time: "He's becoming a mainstream Republican in the minds of more people than in the past."
Analysts have taken notice.
"I do think he's doing a better campaign, but I also think the times have changed and his party is much more receptive to his message than it has been," said David Yepsen, who was a longtime political columnist for the Des Moines Register and is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. "A lot has happened since four years ago. Timing is everything."
Much of Mr. Paul's appeal is that his prophecies have come true. He warned of impending fiscal problems and of an overreach by the Federal Reserve, and now voters across the political spectrum share his fears.
His latest warnings involve the recent defense policy bill that passed Congress, which Mr. Paul said effectively repeals Posse Comitatus rules restricting U.S. military action within the nation's borders, and he said another pending bill on Internet piracy would let the government "take over the Internet."
He foresees "violence in the street" if the nation doesn't turn around.
Mr. Paul makes some specific pledges: He would shrink the federal regulatory code and eliminate five Cabinet departments, would like to repeal the USA Patriot Act and would cut the budget by $1 trillion his first year in office, chiefly by recalling American military forces from most foreign postings.
But he offers caveats.
At his second stop of the day, in West Des Moines, he said to make good on his pledge to shrink government he would need to see a sea change in Congress, too.
"To say that just the single election of one person going to Washington can magically wave a wand and accomplish a $1 trillion cut, that's not likely to happen," he said.
Mr. Paul brings the broadest political philosophy of anyone in the Republican field, but also freely acknowledges that he won't be able to strictly abide by it.
In one instance, he says that while Medicare, the government's health care program for all Americans 65 and older, isn't authorized by the Constitution, it would be too much of a jolt to end it. Instead, he proposes offering an alternative system to cajole younger people away from the government-run program.
Still, he said it's time to ask fundamental questions about the role of government that he said none of the leaders in either party is posing.
"Government has nothing. All they can do is take from one group and give it to another until you come up to the dead end, and that's where we are today," he said.
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