Three years ago Dr Paul proposed a solution for those who would rid themselves of the tyranny of the Internal Revenue Service. Go off and become a citizen of Peru, he advised. All you need, he wrote in his newsletter, The Ron Paul Political Report, is $25,000 (pounds 16,000 ) - the cost of a Peruvian passport.
Dr Paul may not have paused to ponder the consequences of his proposal. What if every American citizen were to have taken him up on it? How would the government of Peru respond to the prospect of acquiring a territory so vast, a colony so rich?
These and other questions linger in the mind, but what is not in doubt is the good doctor's zeal to banish taxes from the face of the earth. On Thursday, during a debate in the small town of El Campo with Charles "Lefty" Morris, his Democratic rival in next month's Congressional election, Dr Paul declared: "Taxes ought to be cut by 50 per cent, at the very minimum."
Here he differs somewhat from his party leader, Bob Dole, who may be kicking himself for his lack of valour in promising only a modest 15 per cent tax cut if he becomes president. Most economists believe Mr Dole's plan is lunacy. Yet the evidence indicates that while Mr Dole could only win on 5 November in the event of Bill Clinton dying, Dr Paul has an even chance of winning his race to represent the 14th District, a constituency in south-east Texas roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland.
Extreme, dangerous and strange Dr Paul may be, but the contest he is engaged in now has a broader national significance than the presidential election, which was all but over on Wednesday after Mr Clinton dispatched Mr Dole in their second and last televised debate with the ease of a seasoned matador facing a tired and confused old bull. The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch, begged in its latest issue for the carnage to end. On the cover, in big black letters against a blood-red background, the Standard asked: "CAN WE GET THIS ELECTION OVER WITH ALREADY?"
The suspense is now with the Congressional races. Not so much with the Senate, where a third of the seats are in play and the Republicans are expected to keep their majority, but in the House of Representatives, where elections are being held - as they are every two years - for all 435 seats.
Texas has been identified by the political professionals in Washington as the battleground where the spectacular victory of Newt Gingrich's Republicans in November 1994 might be no less spectacularly reversed. Mr Clinton's campaign aides, recognising that his presidency will be paralysed by legislative inertia if the Republicans win, announced last week that he would travel to Texas to assist his party's candidates in five "toss-up races".
One of these is taking place in the 14th District, historically a barometer of national electoral trends. Mr Gingrich recognised its importance on a visit to Houston last week, when he made a point of declaring his support for Dr Paul. This was not easy for the Speaker of the House. In the Republican primaries earlier this year he had supported the relatively moderate congressional incumbent whom Dr Paul defeated for the party's nomination.
Even though Mr Gingrich's shrill right-wing views have made him the most unpopular politician in America, he is not comfortable with Dr Paul's fiscal fanaticism. He is even less comfortable with Dr Paul's wildly unconventional suggestion, propounded in his Political Report, that drugs should be legalised.
Whatever the misgivings of the GOP grandees, the rich brew of Dr Paul's ideas all made for a lively debate with "Lefty" Morris at last week's showdown in El Campo, a hot, humid little town 70 miles south of Houston set in a vast expanse of flat, rich farmland. This is lush cattle country, with the most abundant rice fields in the United States. A US and a Texan flag flutter over the town square, empty and silent save for a bar down a side road called Chacho's, where a sign scrawled in Spanish reads, "No knives or pistols are permitted in this place." One half expects John Wayne to amble in on a horse and sort out the bad guys, though what he would have made of the signs outside four adjoining shops at the local mall - "the Care Shop"; "Guns"; "Flower Market"; "the Body Shoppe II" - is anybody's guess.
The debate, broadcast live on local radio, was held in a small air-conditioned chamber inside El Campo's anonymously functional, red-brick City Hall. The two candidates sat side by side on a slightly raised platform facing four journalists whose task it was to ask the questions and hold up little red signs saying "Stop" when the candidates exceeded their time limits.
Shannon Crabtree, news editor of the El Campo Leader-News, kicked off with a question about economic policy. Mr Morris, sporting a red campaign button with his official slogan "Lefty is Right", talked in a gentlemanly Texan drawl about how "mah daddy" struggled to get him through "hah skewl", and how lucky he had been to grow up to be a lawyer, and how government spending was necessary to give young people the opportunities his generation had enjoyed.
Dr Paul, whose contempt for the federal government he aspires to join is so complete that he once advocated Texan secession from the United States, had no apparent difficulty resisting the urge to snort. Impassive as a corpse, and as grey, he did not blink, he did not move.
But when his turn came to speak he sprang alarmingly to life, like a wind-up toy. "Mr Morris is a typical liberal," he raged. "We're working more than half our lives to finance the tremendous abuses of the IRS... I'm a believer, I will not compromise
Dr Paul's ideas of freedom include wiping out social security benefits, government health care and student loans. Hard-working Americans would pay less tax and, according to his credo, the economy would duly soar. "Nirvana", "pah in the skah", Mr Morris retorted. "What Dr Paul fails to understand is that not everyone in America, no matter how hard they try, can achieve the American dream." "That," scoffed Dr Paul, who labels himself "the Taxpayers' Best Friend", "is the same old liberalism that has brought us to the verge of bankruptcy."
"Ha," said Mr Morris, without raising his voice, "this is the man who says we all have a raht to get hah [a right to get high]" "This is the man," spluttered Dr Paul, "who uses the word Nazi against me."
Edifying, rational, measured: the debate was none of these. But, in contrast to the half-baked ripostes and bland exchanges of the Clinton- Dole event, it had the steel and urgency of a contest whose outcome is finely poised and whose significance stretches way beyond sleepy El Campo.
That, at any rate, is how most national observers see it. Not so Ms Crabtree of the Leader-News. She could not speak for the voters 200 miles north, but in her area it was no contest. Dr Paul, she said, had the election in the bag.
A sobering thought, that, for Mr Clinton. His pleasure at winning a second term will be short-lived if Dr Paul goes to Washington, if Texas's 14th District does turn out to be the indicator of national trends it has been in the past. A sobering thought, too, for those American liberals who thought Mr Gingrich was the last word in right-wing extremism. Victory for Dr Paul could spark a rush for Peruvian passports, though not necessarily for the reasons he has advanced.Reuse content