WASHINGTON — Rep. Ron Paul remembers the day he was transformed from a mild-mannered physician into the feisty political Nostradamus of the Republican Party.
It was the evening of Aug.15, 1971. Then-President Richard Nixon announced that he was taking the United States off the gold standard, which had anchored the dollar based on a fixed amount of the precious metal.
"He just, by executive order, ended the gold standard, put on wage and price controls, put on tariffs," Paul, R-Texas, recalled in an interview with McClatchy. "And I thought that was bad news for America and it was going to usher in an age of rampant inflation and financial bubbles and, finally, bankruptcy."
Nixon's actions launched Paul's four-decade political career. At times it's been a lonely journey. Paul has predicted a coming U.S. economic Armageddon, with hell to pay for overly aggressive American military and foreign policies. He also has called for a strict interpretation of the Constitution. At times his views were greeted with derision and laughter, even within his own party.
But a funny thing has happened to Paul as he runs for president a third time: Some of his positions once dismissed as kooky or quirky don't seem so bizarre anymore to many voters or to his fellow Republican lawmakers.
Federally funded bank bailouts, trillion-dollar deficits, high unemployment and the nation's weariness with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused some Republicans to view the 76-year-old Paul in a different light.
Many of his ideas are now part of the standard GOP playbook, including some that once deviated from Republican doctrine. Now they all want to tame federal spending and debt, and to rein in the size of the federal government. And increasingly, many Republicans are considering reducing America's military and diplomatic role overseas. Some even favor Paul's long crusade to return to the gold standard.
"In terms of seriousness, he's taken more seriously this time around," said Michael Tanner, author of "Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution." "There's more of an appreciation for cutting back government, cutting taxes, even issues with the Fed."
Paul, in Tanner's view, has become a less "fringy" commodity and "much closer to the mainstream because the party has caught up to him."
"There's recognition that the problems that the people have worried about and I've talked about are now here," Paul said at a recent breakfast with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. "The financial crisis hit. There's no resolution. The wars that I've talked about are endless and aren't ending. This is confirmation that there's something seriously wrong with our foreign policy and our entitlement system."
His remedy? As president, he would immediately eliminate five departments — Energy, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Education — and end war spending. He also advocates recalling U.S. forces from overseas, ending all foreign aid, and abolishing the IRS and the Federal Reserve.
Paul's message and libertarian streak appealed to a small but fiercely loyal base of supporters who helped propel his unconventional 2008 presidential campaign. But more than 2008, when he ran as a Republican, and unlike his 1988 run as the Libertarian Party's nominee, Paul's 2012 campaign, again as a Republican, will be flush with cash.
He's raised more than $12.6 million, placing him third behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, according to opensecrets.org, a part of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
But it remains to be seen whether the money and growing appreciation for Paul's positions will translate into more votes. So far, Paul has consistently polled in the high single digits to low double digits in national surveys.
"Ron Paul has deep but narrow support," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "In an eight-candidate field that gives him some prominence. But when the field narrows to two or three, he would need to at least triple that support. It is difficult to see how the majority of supporters from the other candidates would go to Ron Paul. It didn't happen in 2008."
Brown and others say that Paul's economic message could be a selling point to voters, but his military and foreign policy positions, including eliminating foreign aid to U.S. allies like Israel, could turn off traditionally hawkish Republicans.
Even Paul sometimes sounds unsure if he'll be able to generate converts to his campaign.
"All I know is the success of this message and freedom movement are way beyond my expectations," Paul told reporters last September.
Getting into politics was the farthest thing from Paul's mind prior to Nixon's 1971 gold-standard action. Born on a dairy farm in west Pennsylvania, educated at Gettysburg College and Duke University Medical School, the former Air Force flight surgeon was content living and working in east Texas as an ob-gyn. By his own estimation, he delivered more than 4,000 babies.
"In college, I wasn't involved in any groups. In medical school I just started reading (about economics)," Paul recalled. "I'd never been involved in a campaign or run for office or donated any money. My family was always Republican, but they weren't very vocal."
But Nixon made Paul's blood boil. He decided to run for the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1974 in a post-Watergate environment. He lost to incumbent Democratic Rep. Bob Casey.
When Casey took another job in April 1976, Paul won his seat in a special election against Democrat Robert Gammage. Then he lost it to Gammage in the general election seven months later.
He regained the House seat in 1978 and kept it until 1985, when he lost a bid to fill the Senate seat vacated by Republican John Tower. He ran for president in 1988, but received only 431,750 votes.
Paul was re-elected to the House in 1995. He announced that he won't seek re-election to the House in 2012, regardless of what happens in his presidential campaign.
Along the way he's become what the Almanac of American Politics calls "one of the most proudly individualistic politicians on Capitol Hill." It added that "he functions as a sort of father figure to the tea party movement, which helped elect his son, Rand Paul, to the Senate in 2010."
For the time being, Ron Paul's happy being the national town crier espousing a mix of libertarianism and conservative ideals, with a dash of Austrian economic theory thrown in. It's not easy, Paul said, but it's getting easier.
"When I first ran for Congress, there were very few people who had the vaguest idea of what I was talking about," Paul said. "But now, the fact that (Fed Chairman Ben) Bernanke has to have press conferences, I'd say we're making progress."
ON THE WEB
McClatchy Newspapers 2011