Ron Paul may be the political butterfly of the 2008 presidential campaign.
An obscure congressman from Southeast Texas for most of his political career, Paul has metamorphosed into the favorite of those looking for a candidate outside the political mainstream. Legions of die-hard fans formed across the country after Republican candidate debates and Internet blogs exposed his contrarian views.
Paul, 71, remains one of the longest of long shots for the GOP nomination, but that hasn't deterred supporters from making cold calls to voters in early contest states, plastering the Internet with plaudits, and loudly challenging Paul's White House rivals at campaign stops.
"I honestly believe that Congressman Ron Paul, as crazy as it might sound, I believe he is the father of the modern Republican Party," said Jason Stoddard, 31, an Austin, Texas, entrepreneur who has no formal ties to Paul's campaign but has made more than a thousand calls to Iowa voters urging their support.
The enthusiasm of admirers like Stoddard has boosted Paul's national profile and helped his campaign raise $3 million over the past three months — a fraction of the double-digit millions chalked up by the top-tier candidates, but a respectable sum for an underdog.
That enthusiasm, however, hasn't translated into widespread support in presidential polls for Paul, who was a Libertarian Party candidate for president two decades ago and is best known as a champion of small government, low taxes and minimal foreign intervention.
National opinion polls of Republican primary voters generally show his support at about 2 percent. And while he's accumulated a cache of campaign dollars, Paul's not spending most of it. He has spent just $650,000 this year, the third-least of all 2008 presidential candidates, according to federal campaign finance reports.
"Most of the oxygen is being taken up, especially on the Republican side, by those who look like they might have a prayer of winning in a Democratic year," said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.
An obstetrician-gynecologist and former Air Force flight surgeon, Paul stands out from the other Republican candidates on several scores, including his long-held opposition to the Iraq war. As a result, he might benefit from President Bush's near-record unpopularity and the growing public discontent with the war, said Michael Tanner, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
But potential supporters may find some of the 10-term congressman's other views more difficult to accept, including calls for a return to the gold standard and a radically smaller government with no Education Department, Energy Department or Internal Revenue Service.
Paul also is just as likely to turn off as many voters as he turns on with positions that straddle both liberal and conservative camps. He opposes the death penalty and votes against military appropriations. He also opposes abortion and gun control. He's known on Capitol Hill as "Dr. No."
Paul spokesman Jesse Benton acknowledged that Paul has formidable challenges to overcome before the first votes for the nomination are cast in about five months. The campaign just bought its first radio ads in Iowa and New Hampshire and has nearly tripled its staff to 25 in the past month.
"We realize the odds are still pretty long for Dr. Paul, but we think that Ron is a real legitimate player now that people are starting to pay attention," Benton said.
As comedian Stephen Colbert put it when Paul appeared in June on his mock right-wing talk show, "You are an enigma wrapped in a riddle nestled in a sesame seed bun of mystery."