CLUTE, Texas — He spoke out against putting dope dealers in federal prison, opposed a bill to crack down on child pornography and voted against the Iraq war. Then Ron Paul announced that he was running for president — as a Republican.
If that sounds like a recipe for failure, or perhaps a political fantasy, consider this: The Republican congressman from Texas had more money in the bank in October than Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee combined.
He's become an Internet sensation and, as the only Republican contender who favors an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, a darling of the televised presidential debates. Paul, 72, is also the runaway favorite for re-election to Congress in his district, where the old "LBJ law" allows him to run for president and for Congress simultaneously. Democrats are so used to losing to him that they haven't even fielded a candidate yet, and probably won't.
"He's definitely an enigma,'' said Allen Cumbie, the head of the Democratic Party in Matagorda County, Texas. "I don't even think he tries to get legislation passed that benefits this district . . . and yet he continues to be elected year after year. I don't really know how to explain it."
Paul's bedrock supporters have a ready answer: He's authentic.
They may not agree with or even understand all of Paul's views, which range from bringing back the gold standard to abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. But at a time when slick packaging and scandal have soured many people on politics, voters are attracted to Paul's grandfatherly, if uncompromising, honesty.
"You always know where he stands,'' said Texas gun dealer Alan Jones, whose engraved .22-caliber rifles have become popular auction items at Paul fundraisers. "The thing you wish for is that there were more politicians in Washington that voted the way that they really think instead of doing it because of politics."
A soft-spoken obstetrician who's delivered more than 4,000 babies, Paul has managed to strike a chord both with little old ladies — his "Granny Warriors" — and dope-smoking libertarians. When he ran for president in 1988, High Times magazine ran a cover story titled, "Ron Paul: Pro-Pot Presidential candidate."
His views on abortion also have found common ground where usually there's none. He's resolutely against abortion but, as with illegal drugs and anti-pornography laws, he thinks that the federal government should butt out and let the states decide what to do.
Paul barely registers in national opinion polls, but his fundraising has made him the surprise of the fall campaign. On Nov. 6, his campaign announced that it had collected a record $4.2 million in 24 hours and $7.4 million so far in the fourth quarter — mostly small donations, many from first-time donors.
What appears to be driving Paul's candidacy most is his fierce opposition to the Iraq war. He was one of only six Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote against it, and his calls for withdrawal make him stand out in both parties.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his antiwar posture, Paul has pulled in more contributions from current and retired military employees than any other candidate, according to an analysis by the Houston Chronicle.
Paul views the war as illegal and financially unsustainable. And he turns upside down the notion that Islamic terrorists must be stopped abroad before they come to America's shores.
"They came over here because we were over there," Paul said last February. "We occupy their territory. It would be like if the Chinese had their navy in the Gulf of Mexico."
A native of Pittsburgh, Paul married his high school sweetheart and celebrated their 50th anniversary this year. First elected to Congress in 1976, he gave up his seat to run for the Senate in 1984 and returned to his medical practice after he lost that race. In 1988, he ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket.
Paul returned to Congress as a Republican in 1997, where his lonely tirades against the evils of big government have earned him the nickname "Dr. No." If it's not in the U.S. Constitution, Paul generally opposes it. He even voted against awarding congressional medals to Mother Teresa and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
Many otherwise solid Republican supporters have found some of his stands hard to swallow. Sandra Steves, a Republican activist and furniture store owner in Bay City, Texas, said her "heart hurts" over Paul's call for an American withdrawal from the oil-rich Middle East.
"We do have interests over there," she said. "How are you going to drive down to Bay City if you don't have any gas?" But she said Paul's stands against tax hikes and his refusal to sign up for a lucrative congressional pension had earned her loyalty.
Paul's electoral success has befuddled Democrats. They say he routinely opposes bills that would help his sprawling 14th Congressional District, a mostly rural swath of coast that stretches from the northern outskirts of Corpus Christi to Galveston.
Last year, Republican appropriators zeroed out millions of dollars in funding for several dredging and port improvement projects in the district — a casualty, Democrats say, of Paul's opposition to government pork even if it benefits his own constituents.
Democrat Shane Sklar, a rancher who lost to Paul last year, said the congressman's supporters either didn't believe or didn't care that his votes had made him an ineffective gadfly.
"The attitude was, 'He may be a little off the wall, but he's our off-the-wall guy,' " Sklar said. Plus, he said, Paul's congressional office gets high marks for helping constituents receive their federal entitlement benefits even though Paul opposes their existence, and voters cherish the free cookbooks he sends out.
President Ron Paul? Sklar won't rule it out.
"I think people underestimate his political skills all the time," Sklar said. "You can't ever take Ron Paul for granted."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)