MAQUOKETA, Iowa — It's usually a low-key, even quiet affair.
Ron Paul enters a room almost furtively, his narrow shoulders hunched as he takes the stage. For 30 minutes, he delivers something close to an academic lecture on monetary policy, the dangers of overseas military entanglements, the power of the free market and, of course, the importance of freedom.
"You have a right to your life, a right to your liberty and the right to the fruits of you labor so you can keep what you earn," he says to cheers.
The crowd — large by Iowa standards in a Republican presidential race — listens, rapt. The Texas congressman takes questions and poses for a few photos, then disappears behind a door.
A Paul campaign rally is a decidedly stripped-down affair, with few signs, no theme song and a candidate more comfortable discussing a return to the gold standard than glad-handing. His libertarian message, given little attention nationally for most of his long political career, has struck a chord this year with voters angry over bank bailouts, government dysfunction and the burgeoning federal debt.
Voters seem to like what they hear, and some are even flirting with the notion that this unorthodox congressman could be in the White House. Polls find Paul topping the GOP field in Iowa less than two weeks before the state's kickoff caucuses — his unconventional campaign attracting a coalition of tea party supporters, students and political independents looking for a candidate who can beat President Barack Obama.
"He's the only consistent conservative out there," said J.C. Weiand, a law student who attended a Paul rally in Fort Madison. "For 30 years, he's been preaching the same message. Now his time has finally come."
Voters largely tuned Paul out in 2008, when he placed a distant fifth in Iowa despite robust fundraising and a small but fiercely loyal grassroots base. Campaigning across eastern Iowa this week, the 76-year old former obstetrician says the political environment has changed over four years.
"The world is a different place, the economy is in a different place and the American people have changed their minds," Paul said to cheers in Maquoketa.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Paul refused to predict whether his campaign could be sustained over the long haul.
"Whether I can maintain it is the big question," Paul told AP. "Are we going to have enough money and do we have enough time? And what about the establishment? I'm attacking their largesse."
Republican operatives have largely dismissed Paul as someone too far outside the mainstream to win the nomination. His rivals for the GOP nomination have largely ignored him, although Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann have criticized his foreign policy views.
Paul's libertarian, isolationist message does often stray far from the traditional Republican playbook.
He rarely mentions Obama at campaign events, blaming both political parties in Washington equally for running up debt.
"Republicans spent money when they didn't have it," he said in Washington, Iowa. "What was it, six or eight years they were in charge? The deficit still went up."
And Paul has doubled down on his criticism of military involvement overseas, even though his views are largely out of step with most GOP voters.
"We're going around aggravating a lot of people, bombing different countries," Paul told a crowd in Dubuque. "Military is militarism, the kind of thing (President Dwight) Eisenhower warned us about. He said watch out for the military industrial complex, they will always have to have an enemy."
As president, Paul says he would cut a staggering $1 trillion from the federal budget, audit and eventually eliminate the Federal Reserve, and shift money from the military budget to Social Security and some children's health programs. His pledge to repeal the Patriot Act draws applause, as does his vow to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service.
To be sure, Paul's campaign hasn't been entirely unconventional.
He's run attack ads against several rivals, especially Newt Gingrich, whom Paul has depicted as trading on contacts he developed as House speaker to enrich himself in the private sector. And Paul has benefited from a well-established network of supporters in Iowa left from his 2008 campaign.
With renewed interest comes renewed scrutiny.
Paul walked out of a CNN interview Thursday when pressed on racially charged statements that appeared in newsletters he published in the early 1990s, when he was on a hiatus from Congress. Paul has disavowed the statements and said he did not know who had penned them.
Confronted by a tearful breast cancer survivor on how he would ensure health insurance companies did not discriminate on the basis of a pre-existing condition, Paul suggested she rely on churches and charitable hospitals to ensure her continued care.
"You can't say to the insurance company, 'You have to insure me no matter what I have, I've had a prior disease,'" Paul said. "It's like me being on the Gulf Coast and not buying wind insurance until the hurricane's right off the coast."
The woman, Danielle Lin, 35, of Iowa City, said she had been ready to caucus for Paul until hearing his answer.
"There has to be a middle ground, there has to be regulation to protect American people from corporations," Lin said. "I love Paul's ideas, but there just has to be someone who gets the human piece of this."