SAN ANTONIO — Ron Paul wants to legalize pot and shut down the Federal Reserve. He thinks the federal government has no authority to outlaw abortion, no business bombing Iran to keep it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and no justification to print money unless it's backed up by gold bars.
The closer the first votes of the 2012 presidential campaign get, the more competitive the Texas congressman has become. It's a moment his famously fervent supporters have longed for. Plenty of others are asking: What's Ron Paul about, again?
As in his two prior quixotic campaigns for president, Paul has toiled for months as a fringe candidate best known for staking out libertarian positions. As every other Republican candidate lined up to attack President Barack Obama's health care law and to promise tax cuts, Paul again demanded audits of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard.
Leading in some state polls, Paul is getting a look from mainstream voters in Iowa, where the 76-year-old obstetrician has emerged as a serious contender in the Jan. 3 caucuses — and in other early voting states, should he pull off a victory.
The sudden rush of attention to Paul's resume hasn't been kind. He's spent the past week disowning racist and homophobic screeds in newsletters he published decades ago, including one following the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that read, "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to collect their welfare checks three days after rioting began."
"Everybody knows I didn't write them and they're not my sentiments, so it's sort of politics as usual," Paul said during a recent Iowa campaign stop.
Looking to cut into Paul's support, rivals laid into him on Tuesday.
In an interview on CNN, Newt Gingrich said Paul holds "views totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American." And Rick Santorum chided, "The things most Iowans like about Ron Paul are the things he's least likely to accomplish and the things most Iowans are worried about about Ron Paul are the things he can accomplish."
Paul returns to Iowa on Wednesday, giving his impressive grass-roots organization in the state a last chance to present, and perhaps defend, positions he's staked out over a long political career and reiterated during the 13 Republican debates held this year.
Paul has served a dozen terms in Congress as a Republican, but he espouses views that have made him the face of libertarianism in the U.S. He blames both Republicans and Democrats for running up the federal debt and opposes any U.S. military involvement overseas. He wants to bring home all troops from all U.S. bases abroad.
He vows to do away with five Cabinet-level departments — Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior — and repeal the amendment to the Constitution that created the federal income tax. He opposes federal flood insurance and farm subsidies and wants to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances while allowing states to decide how to regulate it.