The Texas congressman placed second in a key early test vote Saturday in Ames, coming within 152 votes of winning the first significant balloting of the Republican nominating contest. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won the nonbinding Iowa straw poll, but Paul's organizational strength and a retooled focus on social issues set him up to be a serious player in the campaign.
"I believe in a very limited role for government. But the prime reason that government exists in a free society is to protect liberty, but also to protect life. And I mean all life," he told a raucous crowd on Saturday.
"You cannot have relative value for life and deal with that. We cannot play God and make those decisions. All life is precious," he said, opening his remarks with an anti-abortion appeal to the social conservatives who have great sway here in Iowa's leadoff caucuses.
Later Saturday, Paul won 4,671 votes, or roughly 28 percent of the votes from party activists who flocked to a college campus for the daylong political carnival
Paul's narrow second-place finish pushed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty down to third, leading Pawlenty on Sunday to abandon his effort to challenge President Barack Obama next November.
Four years ago, Paul sought the GOP nomination while talking about economic policy, liberty and the Federal Reserve. Since then, the tea party has risen and seized on those issues, and some regard Paul as one of the movement's godfathers.
"The country's bankrupt, and nobody wanted to admit it. And when you're bankrupt, you can't keep spending," Paul said Thursday during a Fox News Channel debate.
He may lack the broad appeal that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry are claiming, but Paul's finish Saturday indicated he could compete.
Paul typically does well in such straw polls, which rely on supporters' intensity and organization. His base helped him win straw polls at June's Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans and February's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, and his followers organize online to ensure strong finishes at any contest they can find.
It is part of their effort to get rid of the notion that Paul is a fringe candidate.
Paul's 2008 campaign came up far short of better organized rivals. This time, his advisers are putting together a more serious effort that taps into voters' frustrations with Washington and the fears about the economy.
His aides are working within the system instead of against it. For instance, Paul's base camp for the Iowa straw poll was at the same location Romney used in 2007. Romney won that straw poll after investing heavily from his deep pockets for the prime real estate.
Paul's campaign notes that it won more votes this year than Romney won four years ago during his first bid for the GOP nomination. This year, Romney didn't actively campaign during the straw poll; instead, he is looking at a campaign launch in New Hampshire, which hosts the first primary after Iowa's leadoff caucuses.
Still, Paul finds himself outside the bounds of traditional Republicans. His opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan defines him as a dove. His skepticism toward the Federal Reserve has spooked Wall Street. And his libertarian views on gay rights draw the ire of social conservatives.
He also tweaks Republicans on foreign policy, arguing it isn't the United States' role to police Iran's nuclear program or to enforce an embargo with Cuba.
"Iran is not Iceland, Ron," former Sen. Rick Santorum told Paul during Thursday's debate.
Paul also proves a reliable foil for Democrats.
"In previous presidential campaigns, we might have chalked extreme fringe-type candidates like Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul as an anomaly, (and) the Ames straw poll didn't mean as much," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
"But we're looking at the core of the Republican Party now. The heart of the Republican Party is the extreme right wing," she told CNN.
Paul, a 75-year-old doctor by training, is not backing down.
"These straw poll results, our growing poll numbers and our strong fundraising show that our message is resonating with Iowans and Americans everywhere," campaign chairman Jesse Benton said. "Our message was the same in 2007 as it is now in 2011, but this time we have quadrupled our support. That means our message is spreading, our support is surging and people are taking notice."