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Can Ron Paul Turn His Ideas’ Newfound Resonance Into 2012 Votes?

Rep. Ron Paul speaks with Judy Woodruff

(Watch the full interview here.)

What a difference four years make. As I sat down Wednesday morning to interview Ron Paul, the 75-year-old Texas congressman making his third run for president, I kept thinking back to the interview I did with him for the NewsHour in the fall of 2007, the last time he threw his hat in the ring. Though his views are largely libertarian, he runs under the banner of the GOP.

Back then, George W. Bush was in the White House, the war in Iraq was raging and jobs weren’t a big issue: the collapse of the financial markets was almost a year away. Paul spent much of that conversation talking about how it was a mistake to go into Iraq, how the U.S. presence there made extremism worse. He also spoke of his desire to bring American troops home — from Iraq, South Korea and the 128 other countries where he said they are stationed. We had time to discuss issues like abortion (he would have it regulated only by the states); prayer in public schools (he would permit it); and pension programs for members of Congress (he opted out of it). But he made a prescient comment about the economy, saying the public has given up on government, that it’s “not working” and citing polls that showed 70 percent of Americans at the time, in October 2007, “say we’re either in a recession or going to be in a recession, but nobody here in Washington knows about it. Nobody on Wall Street knows about it.” In retrospect, he was onto something.

Circumstances in 2011 are different. Jobs are issue No. 1, the war in Iraq has faded to a back-burner issue, and with the success of the Tea Party in last year’s congressional elections, Ron Paul’s ideas about shrinking government by eliminating the Federal Reserve, the CIA and the departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy and Commerce, don’t seem so foreign. Those comments, and his plea for the need to sharply curtail the cost and size of government, dovetail in fact with the core of Tea Party and related conservative views. His cry to end the notion that it’s the responsibility of the U.S. to police the world is far more welcome today as growing numbers of Americans are weary of so many years of sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ron Paul insists that he hasn’t changed, and evidence bears him out: “…the spending is a big issue with me, but it’s been that way for a long time.” Instead, he expressed optimism he can win people over to his argument that the debt limit should not be raised, and that economic policy is wrong-headed, in both political parties: “I think there’s a big shift because I can compare what’s happening now to four years ago, and it’s dramatically different. Even last year we noticed a big difference, say, on the monetary issue. I have a strong position on the Federal Reserve; I had every Republican in the House support my bill to get transparency of the Fed.”

Paul wants to save hundreds of billions of dollars not only by bringing American troops home from all around the world, but also by stopping the flood of money to banks and corporations through subsidies and the so-called “military industrial complex,” a system he calls “corporatism.” Sounding like a populist, he argues for that money to be partly redirected to the poor, and to people who lost their homes when the “bankers and the mortgage people and the builders” got help. It was an argument that didn’t have as much resonance in 2007 as it does today, with many ordinary Americans feeling left behind, and bewildered, at best, at the role government has played since the financial system went to pieces.

It’s not clear, however, that Ron Paul can translate this newfound resonance of his ideas into votes. He’s running fourth among presidential contenders in some Republican polls, raising more money than some of the also-rans on the list, but still well behind former Gov. Mitt Romney, and even Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a darling to Tea Party voters who could credit Paul with being their philosophical godfather.*

But he’s running hard, and it’s still early. He told me despite his age – he’d be the oldest president by far to be inaugurated if he won – his ideas are young. “Freedom is a young idea. It’s only been tested for a couple hundred years, so I would say people ought to go with a young idea and somebody that can express them.” He wrapped up by reminding me how — as they did in 2008 — young people make up much of his support. Indeed, he was accompanied Wednesday by staffers who looked to be in their early 20s, and as we stepped into the lobby of the headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee, across from the Capitol in Washington, Paul was virtually mobbed by young people, stepping up to shake his hand, or ask for a picture with him. One young man grabbed Paul’s hand and said, “I was with you last time, and I’ll be there again this year.”

Clarification: This paragraph refers to Ron Paul running behind Bachmann in the polls, not in fundraising. In terms of fundraising, he outpaces Bachmann, with $4.5 million to her $4.2 million in the second quarter.

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