DES MOINES, Iowa — Ron Paul is exiting the political stage, but his legions of followers insist they are only getting started.
Libertarian-leaning loyalists of the two-time Republican presidential candidate have quietly taken over key-state GOP organizations, ensuring future fights with the GOP's establishment and laying the groundwork for a future presidential candidate.
Their new relevance, especially in early caucus states Iowa and Nevada, could clear the way for such a candidate, perhaps Paul's son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. It's the next step in the group's ongoing development, from rambunctious malcontents of just a few years ago into more serious party activists bent on reshaping a party they say has drifted from its conservative roots.
"It's the maturation of the movement," said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman not affiliated with Paul. "If you're going to keep the franchise going, you need a candidate."
Iowa's state Republican governing body this month voted to re-elect as chairman and vice chairman two of Paul's top 2012 Iowa caucus campaign aides. Last year, Nevada Republicans similarly elected top Paul supporters to its two spots on the Republican National Committee.
All this despite Paul having lost Nevada's presidential caucuses last year to Mitt Romney, and finished third in Iowa's behind Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Paul backers also have made inroads into Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, in part vestiges of his 2012 presidential campaign.
Indeed, across the country, thousands of Paul's followers, many disillusioned after fighting in vain for his failed bid of 2008, regrouped in 2012 and dove head-first into the behind-the-scenes Republican Party delegate elections, fighting tooth and nail with old-guard GOP establishment activists for national convention seats.
And while Paul retired from Congress this month, his disciples picked up House seats in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas last year.
"In 2008, we came in thinking we could change the world," Nevada RNC committeeman James Smack said. "In 2012, we felt we at least had some say in it."
Yet, it's not clear how receptive the wider party will be to party members who agree with the GOP's core fiscal tenets, but break sharply on national security and foreign policy.
On social policy, Paul lines up with the GOP's mainstream, opposing abortion rights and gun control. On fiscal policy, he shares the view of many in his party that the current tax code, and the Internal Revenue Service, should end. But he is out of sync with the GOP broadly in supporting a return to the gold standard and ending the Federal Reserve system.
He is most sharply at odds with his party on military and international policy. He opposed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign aid to Israel and the option of U.S. military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, a position that cost him in the week leading up to last year's Iowa caucuses.
Pro-Paul state GOP organizations have been quick to distinguish themselves at times from their state's senior elected officials, as Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker did last fall in calling for the ouster of a state Supreme Court judge over gay marriage, a position GOP Gov. Terry Branstad did not publicly advocate.
Paul supporters' simmering tension with the party establishment, which overwhelmingly supported Romney, spilled over during the Republican national convention in Tampa, Fla., last year. Paul's supporters protested loudly pro-Romney committee votes to replace delegates from Maine who backed Paul and for a rule narrowing routes for delegates to future national conventions.
The contempt from the more mainstream elements of the GOP is mutual in places where Ron Paul supporters are on the rise.
In some states, establishment Republicans connected to the party's donor base have complained that the newcomers are hostile to candidates who didn't fit with Ron Paul's ideology.
These critics have pointed to measurable dips in state party fundraising in Iowa. Likewise in Nevada, where Romney and the RNC set up a shadow campaign last year out of doubts about the state GOP competence.
National party leaders are reaching out to these new leaders.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus, elected in 2011 to resuscitate the RNC's fundraising, has sought out Paul supporters as he seeks re-election.
And the view is emerging within the broader national party that it's better to have them inside the GOP organization, where they will be expected to perform in fundraising and, ultimately, winning elections.
"The bottom line is they want to be part of the process. It's good more of them are in charge," Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Given Paul's appeal to younger voters, the broader Republican Party would be wise to listen, Paul advisers and supporters say.
According to exit polls conducted during the November election, Obama outperformed Romney among younger voters. Fully half of voters who backed the Democratic president were under age 45, compared with 40 percent of Romney's supporters.
Likewise, 49 percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats were age 44 or younger, compared to 42 percent among self-identified Republicans. The gap was even greater in the 10 most closely divided states, according to the exit polls conducted for The Associated Press.
Yet, during the nominating campaign, when Paul drew blockbuster crowds while campaigning on college campuses, he carried a higher percentage of younger voters than Romney.
"Young people are embracing his small government, libertarian principles," said Jesse Benton, Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign manager. "That can make the party much more attractive as segments of the party age."
Paul's network could give son Rand a readymade platform on which to run, although former aides note it's not a guarantee he, or any Ron Paul protege, would automatically inherit his supporters.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also get mentions from Ron Paul supporters as philosophical heirs to the former Texas congressman.
"Whether it's Rand Paul or someone else, I have allegiance not to them, but to their ideals," said Drew Ivers, Ron Paul's 2012 Iowa campaign chairman and now finance chairman for the Iowa GOP. "Whoever steps forward to lead that charge is the kind of leader we should champion."
Associated Press director of polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed from Washington.