LAKE JACKSON, Texas — The only trail where you might catch Ron Paul this weekend is the biking one here.
While the other Republican presidential candidates were campaigning in South Carolina, the Texas congressman whose recent momentum is arguably second only to front-runner Mitt Romney's is home taking a break, just as his often belittled candidacy has never been taken more seriously.
Paul's supporters say they don't begrudge the 76-year-old for stepping out of the spotlight after he really seized it.
"It's totally OK," said Cindy Lake, 48, a volunteer passing out voter registration forms ahead of Nevada's primary next month. "We want him to take a break. He needs to take a break as much as any human being needs to take a break."
But Paul's retreat to Lake Jackson, where the former obstetrician is still likely to be spotted cycling down Oyster Creek Drive, may feed skepticism about whether he is really playing to win the nomination or just getting exposure for libertarian ideas. Some of his comments and his unorthodox campaign style have raised that question.
Paul, who was regarded as a gadfly when ran for president as Republican in 2008 and as a Libertarian in 1988, has finished in the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire this month.
After winning 22.9 percent of the New Hampshire vote, Paul made a brief stop in South Carolina on Wednesday before flying home. Early polls suggest he's in the top half of the field in the Jan. 21 primary.
Aides did not respond to questions about Paul's plans at home before his scheduled return to South Carolina, perhaps as early as Sunday.
A few cars came and went from Paul's new 7,300-square-foot mansion in the coastal city of 27,000. The white-stone home is largely concealed by a sprawling live oak tree. A "Paul Acres" sign on a white lattice fence reminds visitors the land is private and not to trespass.
"He's been doing this for 35 years and has done pretty well," said Dr. Richard Hardoin, a Lake Jackson pediatrician and friend of Paul. "If he needs to be here, I presume it's for some important reason."
Paul also raised eyebrows on the eve of the Iowa caucuses by going home for the weekend.
He bucks convention in other ways. He doesn't plunge into crowds to ask for votes. He keeps a relatively light schedule when does campaign, limiting himself to three or four stops per day. His wife, Carol, isn't seen as much as the spouses of the other candidates, and Paul's speeches talk mostly about a movement or message instead of himself.
Paul has been a spokesman for libertarian philosophies for more than 40 years, promoting the cause even when few seemed to be listening. He has written nine books and used his congressional seat and his political races to speak out for eliminating the Federal Reserve, bringing back the gold standard, ending foreign aid, ceasing overseas military engagements and legalizing marijuana. While other conservative politicians have changed positions on issues, he hasn't.
Many fellow libertarians see him as a hero.
"Ron Paul, I credit him. He really started introducing this into public consciousness," said Larry Hilton, an attorney and insurance salesman who helped draft legislation to legalize gold and silver coins issued by the government as currency. "Before then, people just took it on faith — 'the sun rises, the sun sets, the dollar devalues.' Ron Paul changed that."
Paul has been repeatedly asked about how serious he is about his campaign since saying on the eve of the Iowa caucuses that he doesn't envision himself in the White House. He told ABC News, "I don't deceive myself. I know what the odds are."
He's backed away from those comments since, and told a crowd this past week, "We're marching on. The numbers are growing. They grew exponentially in New Hampshire, and they're going to grow continuously here in South Carolina as well."
During the debates last weekend in New Hampshire, Paul stuck out by saying he'd probably be reading an economic textbook on a Saturday night if he wasn't campaigning.
Near his house, some wondered whether he was doing just that.
"He's a family man, he likes riding his bike and I think he feels comfortable doing it here than running around other states doing it," said Jordan Rogers, 21, a student whose backyard abuts to the biking trail where the Paul often exercises undisturbed. "He's got to see his family and strategize and probably catching up on a lot of reading."
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Austin, Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Beth Fouhy in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.