WASHINGTON—It's a fine line between quixotic and committed, and just where Ron Paul falls is an open question as the Texas congressman pursues the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
The case for quixotic: It's a unique conceit to run as an anti-Iraq-war candidate in a generally pro-war party; to vow to eliminate myriad federal agencies, including the CIA, the IRS and the Federal Reserve; and to oppose every act of the federal government not specifically approved in the Constitution (including niceties such as congressional gold medals for such people as Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and Pope John Paul II).
"I've advocated over the years the elimination of most big-government things I can't find in the Constitution," Paul said in an interview.
Trying to explain that during a recent presidential debate, Paul said, "I'm a strong believer in original intent" of the Constitution's framers. To which moderator Chris Matthews, the MSNBC television personality, responded with a disdainful, "Oh, God."
The case for committed: If somebody needs to drag the Republican Party back to its roots, Paul said, "I'm offering that alternative."
Paul was one of six House of Representatives Republicans who voted against the 2002 authorization to use force in Iraq, based on the same wariness of excessive international involvement that long guided Republican foreign-policy thinking. Traceable to George Washington's warning against entangling foreign alliances, its post-World War II followers—including "Mr. Republican" Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio—likely would share Paul's view of President Bush's adventures in democratic nation-building as muddleheaded folly.
"He touches a nerve out there," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "There are Republicans who believe it was a mistake to get in there to begin with, and that's the Paul constituency."
The rest of Paul's platform is a jet-fueled version of the small-government, low-tax conservatism espoused by Barry Goldwater, whose principled stands became the foundation of the modern GOP. It's what the nine other declared Republican presidential candidates all claim to want, too, even though none dares follow Paul's embrace of its stronger features.
"He's performing an enormously valuable service," said Michael Tanner, author of "Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution." "His very existence on the stage pressures the others. There is a small-government, libertarian conservative base in the Republican Party. It may or may not be as big as the religious right. It's open for the taking."
Yet it's that unwavering commitment to principle—no matter where it takes him—that so unsettles Washington insiders who dismiss Paul as a bothersome gadfly.
After the debate, Beltway pundit Gloria Borger opined: "It's hard to look presidential when you're sharing the stage with the likes of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who gives new meaning to the question asked by Ross Perot's former running mate, Adm. James Stockdale: `Who am I? Why am I here?'"
("Their problem," Paul said. "Not my problem. Who are they to set the standard?")
Who he is: An Air Force veteran, Duke-educated ob-gyn who has delivered, by his estimation, more than 4,000 babies. A 10-term member of the House, making him among the most politically experienced of the presidential candidates. A savvy enough politician to ensure that Texas' 14th congressional district gets its share of federal loot, including those earmarks that many conservatives despise.
"I'm their representative," Paul said. "If they say, `We need A, B, C,' I pass their requests on. ... We have every right in the world to get back what we send."
Whippet-thin, with intense hang-dog eyes, the 71-year-old Paul comes across as a loopily enthusiastic professor, voice rising in pitch and pace, arms waving, as he delves into pet issues, especially the folly of taking the country off the gold standard (which sparked his initial interest in politics).
"Kind of quirky," Tanner said. "He has some issues that give him a fringe-y air."
Paul ran once before for president, as the Libertarian Party's nominee in 1988. He won about 450,000 votes, good for third place and about 0.5 percent of the vote.
Ever iconoclastic, Paul strays from Libertarian Party orthodoxy on the issue of abortion (he opposes abortion rights). But the party has no hard feelings for its former nominee: "We love Ron Paul," gushed Shane Cory, the party's executive director. "He's one of the best congressmen on the Hill."
But on the presidential campaign trail, Paul lags at 1 or 2 percent in polls. Even so, he has some things going for his unlikely bid.
He's positively huge in cyberspace, a virtual nation teeming to embrace Paul's leave-me-the-hell-alone approach. Paul's MySpace page lists more than 12,000 friends, trailing only Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among Republican presidential hopefuls. That popularity helped catapult Paul to victories in several online polls after the debate. And lately he's been the No. 1 search subject at technorati.com, a blog search engine.
Paul also has raised enough real-world money to stay in the race for a while. Thanks to a network of donors cultivated through years of nationally distributed libertarian writings, Paul has out-raised some of the more "mainstream" candidates. His $640,000 first-quarter haul placed him a respectable—if distant—sixth among the 10 announced Republican candidates.
Enough to finance a winning campaign? Unlikely. But probably enough to ensure Paul's continued presence as a sort of Ghost of Conservatism Past, causing uncomfortable moments for any other candidate trying to claim the conservative mantle.
And as the war becomes less popular, as conservative Republican primary voters wonder just what the Bush administration was doing nationalizing education policy (through the No Child Left Behind Act) and expanding entitlements (through the Medicare prescription drug benefit), Paul will tout his small-government bona fides.
"I'm very reluctant to have any grandiose predictions. ... I don't know what the future will bring," Paul said. "I know the message is powerful. There's no limitations on the philosophy of freedom. People are begging for it."
For more information on Ron Paul, go to www.ronpaul2008.com