SAN ANTONIO -- Ron Paul wants to legalize pot and shut down the Federal Reserve. He thinks the federal government has no authority to outlaw abortion, no business bombing Iran to keep it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and no justification to print money unless it's backed up by gold bars.
And he might win the Iowa caucuses.
The closer the first votes of the 2012 presidential campaign get, the more competitive the Texas congressman has become. It's a moment his famously fervent supporters have longed for. Plenty of others are asking: What's Ron Paul about, again?
As in his two prior quixotic campaigns for president, Paul has toiled for months as a fringe candidate best known for staking out libertarian positions. As every other Republican candidate lined up to attack President Barack Obama's health care law and to promise tax cuts, Paul again demanded audits of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard.
Leading in some state polls, Paul is getting a look from mainstream voters in Iowa, where the 76-year-old obstetrician has emerged as a serious contender in the Jan. 3 caucuses – and in other early voting states, should he pull off a victory.
The sudden rush of attention to Paul's resume hasn't been kind. He's spent the past week disowning racist and homophobic screeds in newsletters he published decades ago, including one following the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that read, "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to collect their welfare checks three days after rioting began."
"Everybody knows I didn't write them and they're not my sentiments, so it's sort of politics as usual," Paul said during a recent Iowa campaign stop.
Looking to cut into Paul's support, rivals laid into him on Tuesday.
In an interview on CNN, Newt Gingrich said Paul holds "views totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American." And Rick Santorum chided, "The things most Iowans like about Ron Paul are the things he's least likely to accomplish and the things most Iowans are worried about about Ron Paul are the things he can accomplish."
Paul returns to Iowa on Wednesday, giving his impressive grass-roots organization in the state a last chance to present, and perhaps defend, positions he's staked out over a long political career and reiterated during the 13 Republican debates held this year.
Paul has served a dozen terms in Congress as a Republican, but he espouses views that have made him the face of libertarianism in the U.S. He blames both Republicans and Democrats for running up the federal debt and opposes any U.S. military involvement overseas. He wants to bring home all troops from all U.S. bases abroad.
He vows to do away with five Cabinet-level departments – Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior – and repeal the amendment to the Constitution that created the federal income tax. He opposes federal flood insurance and farm subsidies and wants to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances while allowing states to decide how to regulate it.
He says he'll cut $1 trillion out of the first budget he offers as president. He doesn't believe in a border fence but says illegal immigrants shouldn't get a free education in public schools.
He's reliably described by political pundits as non-establishment, quirky, unorthodox. During a Republican debate in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month, Paul defended his views and rejected the idea that they make him unelectable.
"The important thing is, the philosophy I'm talking about is the Constitution and freedom, and that brings people together," Paul said. "It brings independents in the fold and it brings Democrats over on some of these issues."
Paul doesn't always side with the most extreme conservative proposals. When it comes to Gingrich's suggestion that judges could be hauled before Congress to explain their rulings, Paul joined other Republicans in dismissing the idea.
Paul's recent surge in Iowa isn't the first time the GOP establishment has been forced to pay attention to him. A fundraising blitz that netted $5 million in one day in 2008 led Republican operatives to weigh whether he was a bigger threat to siphon votes than previously thought.
Now he may be in his best position yet to do more than just steal votes.
"I see this philosophy as being very electable, because it's an American philosophy, it's the rule of law," Paul said.