LAKE JACKSON, Texas — The last time Ron Paul's congressional district was redrawn, he ended up with NASA's Johnson Space Center as a new neighbor. A group of Houston businessmen soon invited their new congressman for a primer on the value of the space shuttle.
Paul's reply came in a note they thought was a joke. "He told them space travel isn't in the Constitution," said Patricia Gray, a former state Democratic lawmaker once nudged to challenge the Republican.
Paul's dismissal wouldn't matter. He'd still cruise to re-election as always.
With polls giving Paul a chance to win Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, the mercurial congressman has once again dismissed the conventional political playbook. He spent the last weekend before the 2012 voting begins at home in warm Lake Jackson rather than campaigning in the cold of Iowa.
It's the latest in a long list of "He did what?" decisions that detractors point to when arguing Paul will be unable to build on a successful showing in Iowa and eventually capture the GOP nomination.
Supporters note his two decades of electoral invincibility in Texas' 14th Congressional District. But some who live in Paul's home district and know him best still question the viability of an approach and a political orthodoxy that would doom the average incumbent.
"His ideas are wonderful, but you wonder if you can really run the United States in 2012 with strictly those ideas," said John Grotte, a Paul supporter and retired engineer. "He really hasn't changed that much with the flow of the times. So you wish you could take about 60 percent of him, take another 20 percent of something, just a pure politician and stick them together, and you'd have a pretty jim-dandy guy."
Paul has remained loyal to his brand of libertarianism while representing his coastal Texas district. When Hurricane Ike pummeled the Gulf Coast city of Galveston in 2008, Paul voted against money to help his imperiled constituents.
Officials at the district's shipping ports try other members of the Texas congressional delegation when seeking money for dredging. Even neighbors who've carpooled with his children to swim practices and praise Paul's principles say they wish he would have made some allies during all his years in Washington.
In his campaigns, Paul is true to his calls to shut down the Federal Reserve, return the country's currency to the gold standard and halt all military interventions overseas.
At 76, Paul is older than Lake Jackson itself. Dow Chemical Co. created the city for employees in the 1940s, mapping out parts with a business-minded pragmatism.
The Lutheran, Baptist and Methodist churches are lined in a row on Willow Drive because, said retired Dow employee Adrian Zambala, "that's the street where they decided the churches would go."
Residents tell stories of Paul biking around town in too-short shorts and know it's their congressman in the saddle from his habit of keeping one arm slung low to his side when he's worn out from pedaling.
The district runs nearly 200 miles along the Texas coast, skirting Houston's suburban core, and ending north of where Hurricane Rita clipped the coast in 2005. The congressman known as "Dr. No" later stuck to his libertarian principles and voted against federal dollars for Rita recovery efforts.
In the next election, Democrat Shane Sklar won the backing of port officials, earned newspaper endorsements and gained the support of the farm bureau in the largely rural district. Sklar tried to seize on Paul's vote as a slap in the face to the district's storm-struck residents. Paul beat him easily, winning 60 percent of the vote.
Sklar said Paul did it in part with the same formula he's used to establish his foothold in Iowa, relying on a loyal core of supporters who can raise money quickly. In Texas, he's used the money to flood the Houston airwaves each election.
Paul "can raise $2 million with a keystroke," said Gray, who represented Galveston in the Texas Legislature. "But the national Democratic Party would never donate money. I told them, 'I'm sick of you guys coming down here and asking us to raise money, and then we get a decent candidate and can win the race, and you won't give a dime to help.' And they say, 'You can't beat him.'"
In the presidential race, Paul lacks such a dominate advantage in fundraising. He also can't rely on the personal touch he's used so effectively in his campaigns for Congress.
Many of Paul's supporters in his Texas district know him as a 76-year-old former obstetrician who has delivered the children and grandchildren of hundreds of his constituents, and as the politician who sends the Paul family cookbook throughout the district every holiday season.
"My grandmother's never voted Republican in her life, and she always gets a birthday card from him," Sklar said.
If Paul doesn't succeed in his presidential campaign, his career in elected politics will come to an end. He has said he won't seek re-election to Congress while making his third run for the White House. That disappoints Jeff Ward, a chiropractor whose patients include members of Paul's staff.
"I think he'd make a phenomenal president," Ward sad. "I just don't think he's going to make it through the caucuses coming up."
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