To the casual observer, Ron Paul might seem like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Chicken Little—a little-looking man, with a littler voice, warning about a coming financial catastrophe so dire that even a conspiracy theorist could dismiss him as over the top.
But after years in which Paul has sounded the alarm alone, financial experts now agree with at least part of his prophesy—that the country is headed toward insolvency if Washington fails to rein in federal spending and significantly reform entitlements, a prospect that's hard to envision as Democrats and Republicans keep squabbling over spare change in the $4 trillion budget.
"We're tinkering around with $20 or $30 billion and the national debt is going up $2 trillion this year? Unbelievable," Paul says during an interview in the Capitol after a day of votes, meetings, and committee hearings.
That tell-it-like-it-is bluntness, along with his libertarian concoction of low taxes, limited government, and isolationist foreign policy, has won the Texas Republican legions of dedicated followers across the country since his run for president in 2008.
It has also given him a platform outside Washington unlike any he has enjoyed during his 20 years on Capitol Hill, including speeches in March to thousands of self-described members of the Paul Revolution in Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.
“I don’t want power. I want influence. I want to influence ideas.”
"It amazes me," Paul says. "I'm not shocked, but pleasantly surprised. I thought we would get these crowds during the campaign, but they would go away and I could just relax a little bit."
But instead of fading, the enthusiasm for Paul's ruthlessly consistent message of limited government seems only to have grown since he collected a series of single-digit results in the presidential primaries.
In addition to his standing-room-only speeches last month, Paul quietly raised an unusually large chunk of cash—$3 million—in the first quarter of 2011 between his PAC and nonprofit group, more than Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann raised with their PACs and campaigns.
And unlike the other 2008 also-rans, whose organizations wound down soon after the ballots were counted, the operation around Ron Paul has ballooned from a cult-like presence on the campaign trail to a national infrastructure bordering on a cottage industry.
Paul now runs or is affiliated with a college campus outreach organization with 200 chapters, a leadership PAC, a foundation, and a national grassroots campaign with 17 staff, 10 consultants, 17 official state affiliates, and volunteers in all 50 states.
Even with his ready-made base, Paul says he's still torn about moving forward on another White House run. "I'm very reluctant," he says. "It's a tough job and I know what's involved."
Weighing his options for the next presidential cycle is a long way from Paul's first run for Congress in 1974, when the Pennsylvania-born OB-GYN ran in a heavily Democratic district along the Gulf Coast to protest the decision to remove the dollar from the gold standard. "I just wanted to get it off my chest. I was very confident I wouldn't have to worry about winning," he says.
But he did win in 1978, and went on to serve in Congress until 1984, when he left to mount a losing Senate race against Phil Gramm. After running for president in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket, he returned to Congress for a second tour in 1997.
Although he has remained mostly cordial with his fellow Republicans, much of Paul's time in the House has been spent casting votes that make members of both parties more than a little uncomfortable.
He has voted for Second Amendment protections, but against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He has voted against every tax increase, congressional pay raise, and unbalanced federal budget put forward by both parties' appropriators, but has also railed against a federal ban on gay marriage, saying that the government has no role in regulating relationships.
His literal approach to limited government has earned him groans from some fellow Republicans, but his growing national base has kept him at least nominally in the fold with GOP leaders who want the Paul people inside their tent.
"Odd duck, huge following," says one leadership aide, neatly summing up Paul's role in the caucus.
"Ron Paul is seen as a man who marches to his own drummer," Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) said carefully after a Capitol Hill Tea Party rally, which Paul did not attend. "On a personal level, I think he enjoys the respect and affection from members of the Republican caucus."
Later, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a fellow Texas Republican, jumped, unprompted, to Paul's defense. "I know there are some Republicans that are concerned about the Ron Paul influence in our party. But when I go to college campuses and see young people who have heard Ron's position that we've got too much government, how can that not be a healthy thing?"
Paul's aides say that people under 30 are the fuel behind his following, which includes Goldwater Republicans, libertarians, and, frankly, some pot-smokers drawn to Paul's call to end the government's war on drugs. A conversation with Paul's supporters often reveals a personal devotion to the man usually reserved for a family member or best friend.
"I hate to call him a politician," says Brady Nemeth, a North Carolina State student who helped organize Paul's recent speech on campus. "Policy-wise, he has just opened me up to the idea of liberty, both economic and social. It changes my outlook and perspective about how I should be living my life."
Bonnie Kristian interned for Paul's 2008 campaign and now works at Young Americans for Liberty, which grew out of the Ron Paul student movement. "We've grown up with nothing but war and debt and abuse of our civil liberties. It's not very hard for me and others in my generation to figure out that the two major parties don't have our best interests in mind. Ron Paul's message is different."
One intriguing twist in the saga is the emergence of his son Rand, the newly elected senator from Kentucky—and his father's new roommate in a condo outside Washington. The younger Paul has assumed the role of the stickiest thorn in the side of the Senate's GOP leadership, and after just two months is already testing the presidential waters with trips to Iowa and South Carolina. Rand Paul, who campaigned for his dad in 2008 and is close with the whole operation, would defer to him on the White House front. Still, he recently made this prediction: One of the Pauls will be on the presidential ballot in 2012.
Ron Paul says his decision will depend on the response he gets as he travels around the country, and the health of the economy. Jesse Benton, a top aide to Paul, said the congressman will decide "in early summertime, perhaps sooner," but the response so far has been light years away from 2008. "Doors that would have been closed to Ron three years ago are now friendly and open," he says.
Operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire say that Paul has a real following, but it is hard to imagine him beating a Romney or Tim Pawlenty. Then again, winning at partisan politics has never been the point for Paul.
"I don't want power," he says. "I want influence. I want to influence ideas. So really, my goals are completely different."
Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.