VINTON, Iowa — Texas Rep. Ron Paul is emerging as a significant factor in the Republican presidential race, especially in Iowa.
He's been long dismissed by the GOP establishment, but the libertarian-leaning candidate is now turning heads beyond his hard-core followers — and rising in some polls — just weeks before the state holds the leadoff presidential caucuses and four years since his failed 2008 bid.
Paul's sharp criticism of government spending and U.S. monetary policy hasn't changed since then.
And while his isolationist brand of foreign policy may be a non-starter for some establishment Republicans, its appeal among independents is helping Paul gain ground in a crowded Republican field. His boost is an indication of just how volatile the Republican presidential race is in this state and across the country.
"The good news is the country has changed in the last four years in a way I never would have believed," Paul told about 80 Republicans and independents at the Pizza Ranch restaurant in this town on Friday. "In the last four years, something dramatic has happened."
What has helped Paul rise here has been more methodic than dramatic
His campaign here is a stark comparison to the shoestring, rag-tag operation of four years ago that attracted a narrow band of supporters.
This time, he has built an Iowa organization with the look of a more mainstream campaign. He has raised more money and started organizing his campaign earlier than before. Paul was the first candidate to begin airing television ads this fall, and has maintained the most consistent advertising schedule in Iowa.
"We have a more structured, methodical, traditional campaign with Ron Paul here in Iowa more often," said Drew Ivers, an Iowa Republican Party central committee member and Paul's Iowa campaign chairman.
Paul is better-known this time, and has spent almost twice as much time in Iowa at this point in the 2012 campaign than in his bid for the 2008 caucuses. Paul finished in fifth place, closely behind Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in Iowa in 2008.
The intense focus on Iowa this time may be working, with surveys showing Paul is reaching deeper into the caucus electorate.
A recent Bloomberg News poll showed him in close second place in Iowa, behind Herman Cain and narrowly ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Two weeks earlier, The Des Moines Register's poll showed Paul in solid third place, behind Cain and Romney.
But it's unclear whether Paul can cobble together a broad enough electorate to win the caucuses with a plurality of the vote. At the very least, he will impact the results of the Jan. 3 contest. But to what degree is anyone's guess.
The one thing that hasn't changed from four years ago is Paul's style.
He remains the mild-mannered, professorial former obstetrician, delivering long explanations of the history of U.S. monetary and trade policy.
In Vinton, he stoked the audience when he called for cutting $1 trillion from the federal deficit his first year in office, primarily by vastly reducing U.S. foreign aid.
But he also called for shrinking the military budget by reducing the U.S. military presence around the world, arguing that Congress and military contractors are too closely tied together.
"Yes, we have to have national security, but we don't get it by bankrupting our country and being in everyone's face constantly," Paul said.
The sentiment rings true with Charles Betz, a 47-year-old network engineer from nearby Tama, Iowa. He has typically been an independent voter, but is registered as a Republican so he can caucus for Paul on Jan. 3.
It's Paul's foreign and national security policy that has drawn fire from establishment Republicans. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is competing with Paul in Iowa for the outsider vote, has been vocally critical of Paul's stance.
So has Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who has been courted by most of the GOP candidates.
"I gave Paul credit for having the most ambitious plan to reduce the debt, which he does," Branstad told The Associated Press. "But I don't agree with him on foreign policy, at all. I'm real concerned with his views on that."
Paul's rivals have particularly criticized his view that Iran does not pose a serious threat to the U.S., a point Paul made again Friday.
"Think about how the war drums were beating to get into Iraq. None of it was true, and I don't believe the stories now about why we should be shaking in our boots over Iran," he said. "They are absolutely incapable of attacking us."
Paul was traveling from small-town Vinton to equally small Anamosa Friday, before capping the day with a major rally in metropolitan Cedar Rapids, where he was to be endorsed by the founder of the Cedar Rapids tea party.
His focus isn't limited to Iowa.
Paul will be in New Hampshire early next week, where he finished fifth four years ago.
This time, Paul's fiscally-conservative profile combined with his anti-interventionist foreign policy could help him do better.
As in Iowa, he established a paid Iowa staff in New Hampshire earlier, and larger than his 2008 campaign. He was the first candidate to run ads in the state this time.
Steve Peoples in New Hampshire contributed.