Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul greets supporters at the Iowa… (Daniel Acker / Reuters )
Reporting from Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Laura Burkett, a conservative Republican from Coralville, Iowa, didn't give Ron Paul a second thought in the 2008 presidential contest, turned off by his calls for an end to military action around the globe and unswayed by his warnings that the nation was teetering on economic implosion.
"I really thought he was a nut," Burkett said. "Everything he said, I thought, 'This is ridiculous.'"
Four years later, reeling from the nation's fiscal decline and what she says is an unprecedented federal expansion into Americans' lives, Burkett is an ardent supporter who plans to do anything she can to make the Texas congressman the GOP nominee.
People like Burkett show how far Paul's candidacy has come from four years ago, and signal the potential he has to shake up the GOP contest, most immediately at Saturday's Ames straw poll.
While few political experts believe Paul can win the nomination, it's clear that his core concerns — the devaluation of currency, the monetization of debt, derision of the federal reserve, unnecessary militarism — have moved from a fringy outpost into the mainstream of Republican thought. They are echoed by other GOP candidates.
Michele Bachmann recently said, "Ron Paul was right; we should audit the Fed!" Tim Pawlenty frequently decries the federal government's printing of money and the debt the nation owes to China. "Tea party" gatherings routinely feature speakers calling for the country to return to the gold standard. Concerns about America being involved in "endless wars" percolate among Republican voters.
At Thursday's GOP debate in Ames, Iowa, where several candidates called for auditing the Federal Reserve, Paul acknowledged the shift. "I'm delighted that mainstream is catching up with this these days for auditing the Fed," he said. "This is great."
It's quite a change from four years ago, when Paul made similar statements during a 2008 GOP debate as rivals John McCain and Mitt Romney smirked and appeared to be fighting laughter in the background.
Paul told reporters he didn't want to claim any personal vindication, but his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), quickly disagreed.
"We should do some gloating," said the Kentucky senator. "The slogan for the campaign should be, 'Ron Paul was right.' He predicted the housing boom, he predicted the housing crisis, the massive debt crisis we're in now."
The elder Paul, 75, has been in Congress for 21 years in three stints. He has run for president twice previously — in addition to his 2008 bid, he was the Libertarian Party's nominee in 1988. His career as an obstetrician and his opposition to legislation that he believes is not authorized by the Constitution have earned him the nickname "Dr. No."
Paul has announced he will not seek reelection to the House.
Over the years, Paul has been a prodigious fundraiser and has inspired a cult-like band of followers, including hordes of college students and young adults.
Chad Potratz, a dairy manager at a Hy-Vee grocery store, said he has supported Paul since seeing him featured in a video called "America: Freedom to Fascism." After Paul dropped out of the GOP race in 2008, Potratz wrote in his name on the general-election ballot.
"I feel he is the only one telling the truth," Potratz, 42, said after seeing Paul speak in Waterloo, Iowa.
Paul's supporters frequently show up en masse to push him to victories at various straw polls across the nation. But the straw poll in Ames is different, with voting limited to Iowa residents who will be 18 by the 2012 election.
His last campaign largely relied on his acolytes, and he came in fifth in Ames with 1,305 votes.
But Paul's plan this time around is different.
"His campaign was the first to have an office. He's got a young but I think talented campaign manager and good campaign staff. He's got advisors who understand the caucuses, and he is putting together a pretty impressive county organization," said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, a website.
"That puts him in a good position" going into the straw poll, Robinson said.
In Ames, Paul is subsidizing the $30 entry free to the poll, and giving away some tickets. He has air-conditioned buses bringing in supporters from around the state to the Iowa State campus. He purchased rights to the most choice — and priciest — tent location on campus, where he will feed his supporters barbecue.
Paul held a telephone town hall with Iowans on Sunday, and on Thursday wrapped up a three-day, six-city swing. He said he was hopeful that he would finish in the top three of the straw poll.
"We came in fifth last time, a decent showing for not having done much work there. If we come in fifth this time, it is a big loss and I have to recognize that," he said during the telephone town hall. "If we bomb on this, it won't be very good for us."