Those who dismissed Rep. Ron Paul as a joke in the Republican presidential primary campaign aren't laughing so hard these days.
The Texas libertarian's rise in the polls and in fundraising proves that a small but passionate number of Americans can be drawn to an advocate of unorthodox proposals such as returning to the gold standard and abolishing the income tax, CIA and Federal Reserve.
Paul, 72, recently set a one-day, online GOP presidential fundraising record, and pulled slightly ahead of Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee in a New Hampshire poll, where he had 8 percent of the Republicans' support. In Iowa, he tied John McCain for fifth place, with 4 percent each.
Paul remains a very long shot for the nomination. But as the only Republican candidate backing a prompt troop withdrawal from Iraq — and an airing of possible impeachment charges against Vice President Dick Cheney — he appeals to a mix of liberals and conservatives who feel alienated and deeply distrustful of the government.
Where left meets right
"Where the extreme left and the extreme right meet, you'll find Ron Paul," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist and co-author of the book "Divided America."
"He strikes a chord with some segments of the population," especially with his quixotic, uncompromising style, Black said. "But there's a pretty low ceiling in terms of his actual vote."
Paul, who earned a medical degree from Duke University and embraces the nickname "Dr. No," often casts the only House vote against proposals he sees as too meddlesome or unworthy of taxpayers' money.
In recent months he was the only House member to oppose an expression of support for Northern Ireland's new power-sharing government, a condemnation of "the persecution of labor rights advocates in Iran" and a statement citing the importance of "providing a voice" for relatives of Americans who have vanished.
He was one of two Republicans to vote against funding the Defense Department in 2008, and against urging the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Paul is Congress' most prominent advocate of returning to the gold standard, which the country abandoned in the 1930s. In its purest form it would mean that all paper currency in circulation could be redeemed for gold.
Supporters say the gold standard would curb inflation and boost confidence in the economy. But others say it would trigger severe recessions because the Federal Reserve could no longer manage the money supply in times of economic weakness.
For that matter, Paul would eliminate the Fed altogether as an impediment to free markets.
Paul breezily talks of eliminating the personal income tax, saying it provides about 40 percent of federal revenues, which spending cuts could absorb. The government's funding level would approximate that of 2000, he says, although government statistics put the figure closer to 1995.
Inching up the polls
In a phone interview Wednesday, Paul said he is inching up in the polls "because more people have heard the message."
He said he was stunned when supporters raised $4.2 million for him on Nov. 5, mostly through the Internet. It broke Mitt Romney's one-day fundraising record, $3.1 million, for Republican presidential candidates.
"Something is going on," Paul said. "It's all spontaneous," he said, and reflects a hunger for smaller government, greater adherence to the Constitution and "a pro-American foreign policy."
Paul said the United States should leave the United Nations. "I don't like giving up our national sovereignty," he said.
The government should gather intelligence, he said, but dismantle the CIA, which he accused of blunders and abuses of power.
Democratic-drafted charges that could lead to a House impeachment vote against Cheney, Paul said, deserve careful deliberations by congressional committees.
Wishes to keep national sovereignty
Presidential debate moderators typically pay scant attention to Paul and two other House members seen as fringe candidates. But he has triggered some crackling exchanges on the Iraq war, unusual for primary campaign debates in which most candidates hold similar views.
At a mid-May debate in South Carolina, Paul infuriated Rudy Giuliani and others by saying U.S. troops' presence in Saudi Arabia contributed to al-Qaida's decision to attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
"If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem," Paul said. "They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there."
Many Republicans condemned the remarks. But Paul's supporters rhapsodize about his candor and integrity on Web sites and at "meet ups."
"We didn't really believe we could find an honest politician," said Cecelia Poole of Elkton, Md., describing how she and her husband intensely researched Paul's record. First drawn to Paul's hardline stance against illegal immigration, Poole said she found herself agreeing with him on monetary policy, the war and other issues.
"He would turn this country around in the way that it needs to go," said Poole, a semiretired mortgage broker. She and her husband now travel to several states, she said, "promoting him everywhere we go."