HOUSTON – In most Republican presidential polls, Ron Paul appears well behind the front-runners — a little-known Texas congressman struggling to break free of "Undecided" and "Other" before he could take on the wealth and recognition of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
But on the Web, Paul's supporters see him as a "modern day Cincinnatus" and "the 900-pound gorilla amongst spider monkeys."
Paul is hoping to use his high-profile debate appearances, voter frustration over the Iraq war and ballooning government programs to vault him into serious contention in the Republican presidential race. Although he remains squarely in the second tier of GOP candidates, Paul's campaign is expanding aggressively after what he considers fund-raising and publicity successes.
Paul, the 71-year-old obstetrician representing parts of Galveston and the Texas Gulf Coast, finished second among GOP candidates in money raised in New Hampshire and Montana in the first quarter of 2007. He also raised the most money of the second-tier candidates in 14 other states, including Florida and Texas, taking in $640,000 nationwide.
Paul said the California debate earlier this month gave his campaign a jolt.
"That's where we got our real big boost," Paul said just before Tuesday's South Carolina debate, where a misstep that brought applause for Giuliani brought him media attention nonetheless.
"I think there was a significant change in the enthusiasm of everybody in the campaign with the new numbers" after California, he said. "We may surprise not only me, but we may surprise a lot of other people, too."
Campaign chairman Kent Snyder said the campaign staff will more than double in size in coming weeks with the hiring of a full-time fundraising coordinator and state coordinators for Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona and South Carolina.
The debates gave Paul the national exposure he otherwise could not afford.
Campaign staff proudly point to a poll on MSNBC's Web site showing Paul as the beneficiary of a 33 percentage-point approval rating increase after the California debate and the highest positive ratings of the 10 candidates. The unscientific poll, with 91,000 votes cast online, reflects Paul's performance at the forum and the intensity of his Internet following.
Conservative commentator John McLaughlin declared that Paul had given "the best performance of the debate." And according to the campaign, Paul became a "most searched" term on Google and Yahoo Web search engines immediately after the appearance and saw a quadrupling of daily visitors to his Web site.
But that success may have been marred in the South Carolina debate, where Paul said that Islamic terrorists targeted the U.S. on 9/11 and since then because "we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years."
The retort from Giuliani, New York City mayor at the time of the attacks, received applause.
Paul's success may be attributable to his vehement opposition to the war in Iraq — a unique position in Republican presidential politics — and his strict constitutionalist philosophy. He also elevated his profile with a 1988 run for the White House as the Libertarian Party candidate.
Paul has limited his campaign travels so far to early primary states like Arizona, New Hampshire and Iowa. The debates have added California and South Carolina to his itinerary as well.
"We don't have the tens of millions of dollars in the bank yet," Snyder said. "We have to be a little bit more modest in what we do. We're just working within the means that we have and as we get more money in, then we'll expand out."
Dante Scala, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College's Institute of Politics in Manchester, N.H., said Paul will have to spend more time in the state before he can translate his financial success there to political victory.
"Awareness of him is minimal at this point," Scala said. "My guess is the (California) debates may have helped to raise his profile... He certainly had a distinctive libertarian message, and it's one that could resonate in New Hampshire better than in some other states. But all that said, for him to make a real impression, he's going to have to start spending some time campaigning in New Hampshire."
But with only $525,000 in the bank and Paul's congressional schedule to work around, the campaign is more limited than that of the top three, McCain, Giuliani and Romney.
But Paul says he doesn't see the financial disparity as insurmountable.
"The one advantage I have is, they think money grows on trees and they treat it like that," Paul said. "They act like big government themselves."
While many view Paul's campaign as quixotic, Paul said Republican voters are frustrated with the war and with a GOP that is becoming less strident in its opposition to large government.
The libertarian movement, he said, is "much further along than it was 20 years ago. A lot more people are involved. I think it's a very attractive philosophy to young people ... and that's where the enthusiasm comes from."
And Paul, a self-described skeptic, said that even he has begun to believe he can win.
"I don't think you could do this if you didn't believe it was a possibility," he said. "But I'm also a realist too. I know what needs to happen. But sometimes those people who think they know the future don't really know the future.
"I think we're getting their attention, and that to me is exciting."