While national polls place him near the bottom of the field, impressive fundraising, Internet buzz and crowds of spirited followers have Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in unfamiliar territory.
As his campaign gains traction, Paul faces a philosophical contradiction: Is he the principled agent provocateur, known as "Dr. No" on Capitol Hill, trying to bring about a grass-roots anti-big-government uprising in American politics?
Or is Paul a Republican presidential candidate with a libertarian bent, seeking big money contributions to fund a traditional campaign?
More important for Paul, can he be both?
Traditional Campaign or Grass-Roots Movement?
Last weekend Paul, the grass-roots libertarian, found himself in a swank New York City penthouse apartment -- complete with a view of the Empire State building -- talking to supporters enjoying hors d'oeuvres at a $1,000-per-person fundraiser.
The campaign had raised $50,000 before Paul left to spend the rest of the weekend at a conference for the libertarian von Mises Institute, which celebrates Paul's intellectual forefather, Austrian philosopher and economist Ludwig von Mises.
Von Mises might have raised his eyebrows at Paul's candidacy as a Republican.
"Full government control of all activities of the individual is virtually the goal of both national parties," the Libertarian thinker wrote in his book "America".
It is not just well-heeled fundraisers and intellectual conferences that have allowed Paul to blossom -- in fact his grassroots campaign may be in spite of them.
Nearly 70 percent of the more than $5 million Paul raised in the past three months came from the Internet, according to Paul's fundraising director, Jonathan Bydlak.
That haul put Paul a surprising fourth in Republican fundraising, matching, for the second time this year, the total of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once thought to be a formidable front-runner for the nomination by many political pundits.
And Bydlak himself proves the point about the young, anti-establishment, insurgent style of Paul's campaign.
A 24 year-old who worked for a hedge fund after graduating from Princeton, Bydlak quit and joined with Paul in August -- meaning, of course, that Paul has only had a fundraising director since that time.
In interviews, Paul stresses that his campaign is more vox populi than traditional American politics.
"The organization of the campaign popped up spontaneously on the Internet with these meet-up groups," Paul said in a recent interview with ABC News. "It's natural that they would donate the money. So in many ways the campaign has found me as much as I have found them. It's not a top-down organization. Its sort of bottom up. All we have done at the campaign is provide the message and the message turns out to be popular."
Politics of an Insurgent
But even an insurgent candidate like Paul, if he wants to come off the fringe of the Republican backbench and make a viable run for his party's nomination, will need more than $5 million to hire a large enough national infrastructure and buy expensive media ad time.
So along with the online viral solicitations, Paul has learned to raise funds the old-fashioned way too.
In recent months he has attended fundraisers in Florida, outside Boston, New York and elsewhere.
At another $1,000 minimum fundraiser in August, Paul raised $104,000 at real estate developer Donald Huffines' house in Highland Park, Texas, outside Dallas.
Huffines, a self-described conservative Republican, said he supported George W. Bush in 2000 and "generally supports whoever the party nominates" in the general election.
But Huffines sees something special in Ron Paul.
"There is no passion with the other candidates, and there is zero excitement for the other candidates at the local level, where I am," said Huffines, who has been active at the precinct level in past years.
Contrast Huffines with the stereotypical Paul supporter -- young, perhaps bearded male, who seems likely to attend a rally on a college campus. But everyone is welcome in Ron Paul's tent.
Passionate Paul Supporters Defy Central Casting
One Ron Paul supporter, Liv, a 24 year-old bubbly blond vegetarian from Los Angeles who posts videos to her Myspace page and calls herself "Ron Paul Girl," has one of the more viewed Ron Paul videos on YouTube.
In it, she strips down to her underwear and a tank top which reads "Ron Paul 2008."
In another video, Liv is seated on a couch and tries to woo Paul supporters into the Republican Party.
"Look, unless she drives off a bridge and drowns a girl, Hillary Clinton has got the Democratic nomination. But with the Republican nomination still up for grabs, there remains a chance, a chance, that in 2008 we can get a candidate through who doesn't completely suck, Liv said, before then imploring her viewers to register Republican and vote in the primaries.
"I know how some of you feel about the Republican Party," she acknowledges. "Do they sometimes start wars for seemingly no reason? Yes. Do they sometimes try to cram their own personal religious beliefs down everyone's throats? Sure, some of them do."
"You don't have to commit to being a Republican for the rest of your life," Liv entices. "Just for this primary election. And after the primary election you can. … change your registration back to Democrat or tree-hugging Green Party member or whatever it is that you normally are."
There is an obvious divide between traditional Republicans and the Ron Paul Revolution, as it's called by supporters, is not, as Huffines puts it, "the country club Republican set."
Politics of Paul
In radio ads, Paul has stressed his Republican credentials - for small government, against socialized healthcare, and pro-life.
He does not, in the ads running in early primary states and intended to introduce him to traditional Republicans there, mention his opposition to the Iraq War, even though that issue more than any other has made him the darling of supporters like "Liv" on the Internet.
Another thing the Ron Paul revolutionaries must come to terms with is that Paul, while he opposes spending bills and taxes, is still a successful congressman, serving off and on since the 1970s.
While he crusades against wasteful spending, Paul also does what most politicians in Washington do -- represent his constituents by earmarking funds for them in appropriations bills.
It is no revelation that Paul does, as his campaign said, "forward" funding requests from constituents to appropriators in Congress.
Earmarks, placed secretly into spending bills have been made into the good government bogeyman by watchdogs in recent years.
"Eliminating earmarks designated by members of Congress would simply transfer the funding decision process to federal bureaucrats rather then elected representatives," Paul said on the House floor in June.
"In an already flawed system, earmarks can at least allow residents of congressional districts to have a greater role in allocating federal funds -- their tax dollars -- than if the money is allocated behind locked doors by bureaucrats. So we can be critical of the abuses in the current system, but we shouldn't lose sight of how some reforms may not actually make the system much better."
Offsetting earmark requests by voting against appropriations bills is not an entirely convincing argument for government watchdogs.
"The idea that the only way you can get re-elected is to bribe your way in is a myth," said Leslie Paige of the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste. "That is the rationale they can use to say everyone else is getting a piece of the pie. It's passing the buck."
Paul does get a high marks from Paige's group for his voting record against pork-laden spending bills.
Ultimately, Paul's campaign, more than any other in the presidential field, has less to do with Paul than with Paul's message against the way Washington works.
It remains to be seen if enough traditional Republicans will join the cause, allowing Paul to make an impact at the polls.
But Paul's "revolutionaries" -- traditional or not -- are convinced.
"Ron's niche is huge," said Huffines. "His niche you could drive a semi through. Where the current party is, and the mainstream talking heads in the party, is not where the people are."