WASHINGTON-- --No matter who shows up at this week's Republican presidential debate in Baltimore, it's a good bet the biggest applause will go to the most conservative man onstage.
He's Rep. Ron Paul, a perfect protest candidate for 2008. Trained as a physician, he's "Dr. Paul" to a small but growing base of fervent admirers - more than a few of whom could fairly be called zealots.
Around the Capitol, the Texas congressman is "Dr. No," for his frequent, and often lonely, insistence on opposing any legislation that, in his view, exceeds the authority explicitly given to Congress by the framers of the Constitution.
Now, at 72, this enemy of central government is finding overnight success in some unusual places, such as college campuses.
His reedy voice and arched eyebrows impart an air of bemusement, which is one element of his appeal. But what makes the oldest man in the Republican field stand out is his determined opposition to the Iraq war.
A debate confrontation with Rudolph W. Giuliani over the war gained him more publicity in "five days than in 30 years. It was unbelievable," Paul says in an interview. "It was very clear that I was a Republican who had conservative values that spoke and defended a lot of ideas that liberals had."
Ten times over the past three decades, the Pittsburgh native and Gettysburg College graduate has won election to a House district on the fringes of the Houston metro area. The coordinates of his ideology place him somewhere else: on the far side of American politics, where right and left meet.
Paul is an old-fashioned Republican isolationist whose conservatism has a strong libertarian streak.
In 1988, he ran for president as the Libertarian Party candidate. This year, he has gone viral on the Internet and can be found everywhere from YouTube to white supremacist Web sites.
He long has been an idol of hard-money advocates, drawn to his longtime crusade to abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard (Paul says "Internet education" is bringing fresh, young recruits to that fight). Now he's touching a nerve with an electorate fed up over everything that is happening in Washington and, especially, Iraq.
It's little wonder many liberals think he's appealing. Paul opposed the Patriot Act and says President Bush has "run wild" in spying on Americans. He would cut defense spending by hundreds of billions of dollars and put part of that money to work at home helping some of society's most vulnerable members.
A longtime foe of the government's drug war and of mandatory prison terms for nonviolent crimes, he would permit the use of medical marijuana. Like former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, he talks about decriminalizing drugs.
Paul's eyes light up at the thought that Schmoke might attend the debate at historically black Morgan State University about issues of special interest to urban and minority voters .
"Oh, wouldn't that be neat? I'd love to meet him," he says.
As liberals applaud his Bush-bashing rhetoric and arguments against U.S. military intervention abroad, the flip side of Paul's record has gotten much less attention. A few examples:
Three years ago, he was the only member of the House to vote against a resolution honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination by hotels, restaurants and theaters. In a speech explaining his "no" vote, Paul said the 1964 law "did not improve race relations or enhance freedom." Instead, the "forced integration" it "dictated" infringed on "the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please."
More recently, he was one of only two House members to vote against a measure calling for the investigation of unsolved civil rights murders that took place before 1970. Paul says he does not believe the federal government should be involved in murder cases. There are no blacks on the staff of his House offices or presidential campaign, but he says he has had black aides in the past.
On immigration, he joins hard-line Republican presidential candidates Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California in demanding an end to "birthright citizenship." Paul wants to repeal the provision of the 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to immigrants' children who are born in this country, arguing that it was ratified before there was a "welfare state to exploit and the modern problems associated with immigration could not have been imagined."
He says he has attracted more donations in the past three months than he did in the previous quarter, when he out-raised the other long shots at this week's debate. One college student got so enthusiastic about the campaign that he collected about $40,000, according to Paul.
He is realistic about his chances of winning the Republican nomination, and there is already talk about a third-party run in 2008. Paul says he has "no intention" of doing that, which is usually politician-speak for "wait and see."
All American Presidential Forum on PBS
WHO: Five Republican presidential candidates: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas Alan L. Keyes Rep. Duncan Hunter of California Rep. Ron Paul of Texas
WHERE: Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University
WHEN: 9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27
TV: Maryland Public Television