WASHINGTON – Failing to get elected as a Libertarian Party presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul turned to the Republican Party to win Texas' 14th Congressional District, but now often finds himself defending his politics not only against Democrats but against his own GOP colleagues in the House.
"He's really a libertarian and he pays the price for that," said Libertarian Party spokesman George Getz.
Despite the obstacles, Paul's brand of strict constitutionalist, limited government sensibility and hard-charging campaign style have afforded him easy wins in his rural district over the last three election cycles.
Facing two Democrats with no political experience who will face each other in a primary next month, Paul is a shoe-in for 2002 since the Democratic Party is not expected to put too much effort into trying to unseat him, political experts say.
But as an iconoclast who voted against honoring both Pope John Paul II and civil rights icon Rosa Parks with Congressional Gold Medals, how does Paul continue to win over the electorate? Supporters and critics alike have their theories.
"Ron Paul campaigns as a person who is 180 degrees opposite from his writing and his record," charged Texas Democratic consultant Ed Martin, who works with congressional and state candidates in Texas.
"Most people in my district would probably say that wasn't true," Paul responded when confronted with Martin's claims of his duplicity.
"It's the way you frame things, and I convince them that I care about their problems," Paul said of his constituents, primarily farmers.
Martin said Paul's maverick record in Congress — he is often the one lone dissenter in the House on issues like foreign policy, taxes and budget spending — appeals widely to libertarians across the country who feel they have a vested interest in keeping him in Washington.
But at home, contends Martin, Paul campaigns as a middle-of-the-road politician, one who promises senior citizens that he will fight to protect Social Security.
"He is really well-funded from a network of libertarian and right-wing types and he is spending that money making ads with him sitting like a liberal Democrat," said Martin.
His fundraising lists are indeed filled with thousands of libertarians, translating his popularity into campaign funds, said Getz. "He's got a nationwide network of small 'l' Libertarian [Party] members who are happy to send him money."
But given the demographics of his district, Paul doesn't really need to be a shape-shifter to gain the confidence of his constituents. Located in east Texas along the Gulf of Mexico, the 14th District is mostly rural and has leaned Republican since the Reagan era.
Paul said he's "straightforward" with farmers when they ask why he doesn't support subsidies. He said seniors know he doesn't approve of federal Social Security, but he helps them fight the bureaucracy when they need it, while encouraging them to see the light on privatization.
Paul served four terms in the House before running for the Senate and losing to Phil Gramm in 1984. He then ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988. He lost after garnering 432,000 votes, but nonetheless established a foundation for the network of support he enjoys to this day.
In 1996, he beat out the GOP-favored candidate in the primary and then won narrowly against the Democrat, who attacked Paul as being pro-drug legalization, pro-prostitution and anti-minimum wage.
"Here I am in the Bible belt," he recalled, noting that voters there warm to his pro-civil libertarian message. "But I convinced them they don't want [government] in their business."
He admits his budget-cutting zeal has kept him from getting plum committee assignments, but he knows he has been helpful on procedural votes with his party and doesn't feel much antagonism from his peers.
"I would say if they are really nasty to me it's behind my back. On a one-to-one basis, I figure its pretty cordial," he said. "I mean, I don't yell and scream, but I'm sending a subtle message" that maybe Republicans might have lost their way when it comes to limited budget.
Though Paul blames "meddlesome" U.S. foreign policy for the current terrorism crisis, he said he voted for the authorization of defense funds, keeping a critical eye on how the new laws may affect civil liberties. And that's what his constituents want to hear.
"I vote the least amount of taxes and the least amount of government and that people should be left alone," he said. "Every time I campaign I have the same theme."