Ron Paul has been a national figure for so long that it's easy to forget he's one of ours.
You know. Texan.
After years in the national spotlight and, sometimes, at the edges of the spotlight, Paul announced that he won't seek re-election to Congress next year. Instead, he'll spend his time campaigning for president for the third time.
He's got a new kind of competition this time around. Paul spent years sounding like a crackpot or a fringe case, spouting ideas that were outside the boundaries of mainstream Republican thinking. That's one reason his supporters love him — he's a fearless iconoclast who sticks with his ideas even when everyone around him is pointing and clucking and wishing he'd sit down and be quiet.
Now, however, many of his ideas have taken root. He's clearly one of the intellectual uncles of the Tea Party movement, and that bunch clearly has many Republican politicians crying uncle. The problem for Paul is that many of his ideas have been appropriated by the kinds of mainstream Republicans who used to snort when he talked. He doesn't stand out the way he once did.
Paul is probably the most consistently anti-Washington politician in all of Washington. Lots of them start that way and gradually, inexorably, go native. Members of Congress are like the donkey boys in "Pinocchio," lost in their revelries and oblivious to everything that's not in their Land of Toys. Paul has been able to live there without turning into a donkey. Even if you don't like his ideas, you have to admire his character.
Lots of people like his ideas. But that means Paul has to share his audience with libertarians and Tea Party folks and everybody else with a figurative "Kick the Feds" bumper sticker on their car or truck.
He's got another problem at home, to the extent that he was counting on Texas as a base of support. It's looking more and more like Gov. Rick Perry will be in the race. The governor has a bully pulpit — he can draw attention easily — and he is one of the most successful appropriators of Tea Party ideas in the Republican Party. He's made the anti-Washington theme his family crest, first in last year's race for re-election, then as the motif of his book Fed Up! It is also a leading candidate to be his rallying cry in a presidential campaign.
It's difficult for a rank-and-file member of Congress, even one with a small but devoted national following, to wrestle the microphone away from governors and former governors with lots of money. Running for president is one way to do it, and Paul seems less concerned with winning the nomination and getting himself into office than with infecting everyone else with his philosophy and policy notions.
He's been in Congress for two decades, in three stints. First elected and then defeated in special and regular elections in 1976, he got back into Congress in 1978 and then lost a Senate race in 1984 (to Phil Gramm). In 1988, he was the Libertarian nominee for president. Paul returned to the House after 1996 elections in which he beat Greg Laughlin, a Democratic incumbent who had switched to the Republican Party, and then a Democrat with the politically disabling name in a Republican district of Charles "Lefty" Morris.
Paul ran for president again in 2008, this time as a Republican, getting 4.9 percent of the vote in the Texas primary and 5.6 percent nationwide. That Texas showing put him in third place, behind John McCain and Mike Huckabee, and ahead of Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. His best results that year were in the border states — on the other side of the country: Washington, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota each gave Paul more than 20 percent of their votes.
He'll be 76 next month. He's a doctor (obstetrics and gynecology), a veteran (Air Force) and the father of a United States senator (Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky). He has been on the statewide ballot in Texas three times, but really only campaigned statewide in that Senate race in 1996. In the presidential runs, most Texans have seen him the same way most everyone else has — in debates and appearances on TV.
With others touting his policies and Perry dominating the conversation and the GOP loyalties in Texas, Paul's biggest obstacle is the most fundamental question in politics: Why him?