Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is in a bid to make history in Iowa. Can he become the first marginal, conspiracy-minded congressman with an embarrassing catalog of racist material published under his name to win the caucuses?

In 2008, the surest way to get applause in the Republican primary debates was to excoriate Ron Paul. This year, the Texas libertarian stands much closer to the emotional center of gravity of the party in his condemnations of government spending, crony capitalism, the Federal Reserve and foreign intervention. He brings 100-proof moonshine to the GOP cocktail party. It can be invigorating and fun, if you ignore the nasty adulterants.

The fight over Ron Paul isn’t a battle for the soul of the Republican Party so much as for its standards. Throughout his career, Paul hasn’t been able to distinguish between fringy cranks and aboveboard purists. He has taken a principled anti-government position and associated it with loons and bigots.

It may be the ultimate commentary on the weakness of this Republican field that it hasn’t even been able to produce a respectable out-there libertarian.

Paul can be a winsome figure in his irritable, absent-minded-professor way. Invariably wearing a suit jacket that looks a size or two too big, he has stood out in the debates for his knowledge and for his entirely consistent worldview applied to any problem, politics be damned.

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