Ron Paul in Polk County

An old man wearing a striped polo shirt tucked into khaki trousers threads his way through the crowd. He is flanked by men with crew-cuts and black suits who move from table to table, brushing off reporters. They reach out to tap a guest’s shoulder.

“Would you like to meet Ron Paul?”

On Aug. 27, roughly three hundred people gathered at Jalapeno Pete’s on the Iowa State Fairgrounds at the Polk County Republican Picnic. The room erupted with applause as he began to speak.

“Our problem is that the government is too big,” Paul told them. “As government gets bigger, your personal liberties are diminished. There is no way you can escape it.”

Ideological Oddity

Paul has come a long way since that day at Jalapeno Pete’s. In last week’s Des Moines Register Poll, he had moved ahead of Mitt Romney and into second place behind Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Throughout his climb, he has stood out from other GOP contenders on controversial topics, including criticisms of U.S. currency and the Department of Education. He has opposed the Federal Reserve and federal taxation for four decades, and his belief in limiting government has earned him the nickname “Dr. No.”

“If we had people in Washington that only voted for bills that were constitutionally correct, we wouldn’t need an income tax,” Paul said at the fairgrounds event.

Paul has said the government’s power should be limited to what is set forth in the U.S. Constitution. This makes him an attractive candidate to Cory Adams, GOP chairman in Story County.

“All the candidates talking about the Constitution got their cue to do so from Congressman Paul. He’s kind of a trend setter in that way,” said Adams, who has publicly endorsed Paul for his 2012 presidential bid.

Liberal voters also find Ron Paul appealing.

Matt Heflin, a psychiatric nursing assistant at the University of Iowa Hospital, thinks a Paul presidency would put an end to foreign wars, something he said President Obama promised to do when Heflin voted for him in 2008. Neither Paul nor Obama say they would end all foreign wars. Paul’s website says he would avoid long and expensive wars and would not engage in any foreign war without a formal declaration of war by Congress. Obama announced specific dates for withdrawing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I feel betrayed by Obama,” Heflin said. “The mainstream media says Ron Paul is unelectable, he’s too radical. But we want radical change. We voted for Obama for radical change.”

Drew Ivers, Paul’s Iowa campaign chairman, agrees – journalists have shortchanged Paul in comparison to other candidates.

“We are obligated to raise funds, to take out ads, and get our message out with less support and coverage from the news media,” Ivers said. “So it makes it more challenging and something we have to respond to by our own efforts.

As Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucus draws near, the Republican primary is increasingly dominated by Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

From Green Tree to Gettysburg

Ronald Ernest Paul was born on Aug. 20, 1935, to Howard and Margaret “Peggy” Paul, The third of five sons, he spent his early years on the family dairy farm in Green Tree, Pennsylvania.

He met his future wife Carol Wells at Dormont High School, where Paul was class president, according to his biography, Ron Paul: A Life of Ideas. They now have five children and eighteen grandchildren.

Paul paid for his first year at Gettysburg College with money he’d saved up: $325, plus expenses, his biography said.

“I think that early period of his life, which involves self-reliance and independence, is indicative of his philosophy about America,” Ivers said.

Paul and Carol married Feb. 1, 1957, and spent their honeymoon in Durham, N.C., where Paul returned the next fall to attend Duke Medical School.

Doctor Paul

He finished in 1961, and got drafted a year later to serve as a medical officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis at the Kelly Air Force Base, Tex. He spent much of his time doing physicals on helicopter pilots.

His experiences at the base would shape his foreign policy, particularly his stance against what he saw as needless interventions into foreign wars. Though Paul believes in a strong defense, he is against militarism, Paul’s Iowa chairman said. While in Congress, he voted consistently against the Iraq War and opposed military aggression as a means of keeping the nation secure.

“Mr. Paul believes that [foreign wars] cripple our economy, compromise our integrity, and in many instances detract from our ability to defend ourselves,” Ivers said.

In 1968, he completed medical residency in obstetrics and gynecology, set up a practice in Lake Jackson, Tex., where the Pauls still live. During his work there, he developed his strong anti-abortion stance, Ivers said, though the National Right to Life Committee rated his voting record on as mixed.

The Value of Public Education

Paul is also outspoken on the subject of education.

“We really don’t need the Department of Education,” Paul said at Jalapeno Pete’s.  “If you’re looking for places to cut, and nobody wants to cut anything, we could start with the Department of Education and a few other departments that we don’t need.”

Paul said education should be taken over by private schools and parents.

Teddi Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity, said the idea is shortsighted and ignores a large percentage of families in need who couldn’t afford private education.

“We would actually go backwards as a nation education-wise,” Fishman said in a phone interview. “It’s hard for me to understand how any presidential candidate would want to do something that would likely have that sort of effect.”

Although Fishman homeschooled her daughter for a year, she did not support making homeschooling governmental policy. She said that despite her college degree, she could not have taught calculus if the need had arisen.

“It’s very hard for one person to have knowledge in all the different areas that really are required for a well-rounded education,” Fishman said.

Silver and Gold

Paul was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976.  He lost a Senate bid in 1983, resigned from the GOP and ran as the Libertarian presidential candidate in 1988. After losing to George H.W. Bush, Paul re-registered as a Republican and returned to Congress in 1997 for the 14th Congressional District of Texas. He still holds that seat.

Paul, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology, says the Federal Reserve’s ability to “print money” at will causes monetary inflation and says linking the currency to a common standard of value would solve this.

“We don’t need a Federal Reserve System, he said at Jalapeno Pete’s. “We need a gold standard for our money.”

Some his supporters question whether a gold standard would solve anything.

“We can’t obviously use what we’re doing now,” said Christopher Pudenz, a guest at the Polk County Republican Picnic. “But I don’t think we can go back to the gold standard.”

Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor and chair of the Department of History, agrees, arguing that because gold’s value can fluctuate like anything else.

“I think it trades one set of problems for another,” Gordon said. “There’s nothing magical about gold. You could have a coal standard if you wanted.”

This view is not necessarily inconsistent with Paul’s.

“It does not have to be silver and gold, but it should be something of value,” Ivers said. “Whether it be a precious metal or some other asset.

But according to Gordon, the concept of a gold standard is more about international commerce than domestic money supply.

The gold standard was removed in the 1970s because of monetary inflation following the costly Vietnam War. Having U.S. currency tied to gold devalued it in comparison to other currencies and threatened the nation’s ability to compete globally. Because of this, Gordon said he is not surprised that the U.S. abandoned gold.

“I don’t think leaving the gold standard in the 1970s was that dramatic a decision,” he said. “It’s not as if currencies are not pegged to a common value. For most of the currencies since 1972, that common value has been the American dollar.”

Gordon said today’s global economy is more complicated than in the 1970s, and though he shares Paul’s concerns about monetary inflation, he’s unconvinced that the gold standard would solve it.

“It’s a symbolic position taken by Paul and other libertarians as a way of underscoring what they see as a dangerous amount of political control over the money supply,” Gordon said. “It’s not a practical set of fiscal solutions.”

The Ron Paul Revolution

Much of Paul’s bipartisan support grew out of online grassroots efforts of unaffiliated groups during his 2008 presidential campaign.

“I have never seen such a diverse coalition rallying to a single banner,” Paul wrote in his book, The Revolution: A Manifesto. “And despite their philosophical differences, these folks typically found, to their surprise, they rather liked each other.”

Those same supporters propelled Paul to a near first-place tie with Bachmann at the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll. His campaign touted this as a clear victory, and a sign that his message was resonating.

Info box

Cary Covington, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, said he was skeptical about this interpretation.

“[Paul]’s pretty well known in the Republican Party,” Covington said. “His level of support is well established, and it’s not going away, but it also doesn’t seem to be growing. I think as some of the support for other candidates wanes Paul might pick up some percentage points in the polls. But I don’t see him winning in Iowa.”

Covington said some of Paul’s positions are out of step with the GOP. His anti-war stance and tolerance of drug use and gay marriage alienate him from his own party, he said.

This might explain why liberals like Matt Heflin, who has become increasingly frustrated with Obama’s policies, have shifted to Paul.

“I was all about Obama. But then when he got into office, everything stayed the same,” Heflin said. “Say what you want about Ron Paul, but he means real change.”

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, said liberal voters concerned about the economy prefer Paul’s fiscally conservatism over the policies of other GOP candidates.

“They’re probably not going to look to other Republicans, even if they’re saying the same things on the fiscal stuff that Ron Paul is,” Hagle said. Hagle said they are attracted to Paul’s libertarian stances on social issues.

Ivers agrees that widening Paul’s appeal is a challenge but said every candidate faces it.

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