BOONE, Iowa -- He’s got the best campaign organization in Iowa, hands down, and running second or third in the polls. His hard-hitting campaign video accuses front-running rival Newt Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy." Campaign offices opening Thursday in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington signal that he’s in it for the long haul.

But Ron Paul is rarely, if ever, described as a first-string Republican contender on par with Gingrich or Mitt Romney. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found he was a "significant newsmaker" in only 2.6 percent of the national media's campaign coverage between July and November, tied with Jon Huntsman—whose low poll numbers made him ineligible to participate in last week's debate in Des Moines. In a sign of Paul's grassroots appeal, he was the most favorably discussed candidate on blogs and Twitter, according to the Pew study.

“How can we win this thing without the media recognizing you?" demanded 64-year-old Bruce Schuller, among the 125 people sitting knee-to-knee and filling a room in this town's public library last week to see the Texas congressman and tea party icon.

Paul could have used the question as an opportunity to bash the media, a popular sport in some Republican circles. Instead, he turned the question back on the voter.

“It’s up to you," Paul said. “If we pull something off … it’s going to be tough for them to keep ignoring us."

Could Paul win the Iowa caucus, the nation’s first nominating contest, on Jan. 3? Absolutely. Republican voters, especially conservatives, have proved to be a fickle lot in this most unpredictable of primaries. The level of campaign infrastructure and number of candidate visits is a fraction of the activity on the ground in previous election cycles, which could dampen turnout. That would give Paul and his fired-up cavalry of volunteers an advantage.

“He’s totally legit," said Craig Robinson, a former state party official and the founder of a website on Republican politics. “I was impressed with what he did in the last election, and he’s had four more years to build on that, to think this out and organize and implement it. They’re really drilling deep for support."

Even a second-place finish for Paul in Iowa could significantly shake up the race. If Gingrich wins and Paul pushes Romney into third place, the caucus results could depress Romney's support in the New Hampshire primary one week later.

Other prominent Iowa Republicans are skeptical about Paul's potential to affect the race. There are only so many caucus-goers, they say, who will fall for a cantankerous, 76-year-old libertarian who wants to return to the gold standard and believes drinking raw milk is a fundamental right. A substantial amount of his support comes from the college-age crowd, a traditionally unreliable voting bloc that heads in farflung directions over the holiday break.

Even if Paul were to eke out a win in Iowa, he’s an unlikely Republican standard bearer. In a party full of military hawks, Paul condemns the “military-industrial complex" and is adamant about bringing American troops home. In a recent appearance at Iowa State University in Ames, he went so far as to say that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was “glee in the administration because now we can invade Iraq.”

The remark prompted President Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, to respond on Twitter: “The man is nuts."

That wasn’t the first time Paul has drawn flak for his views of the 2001 attacks. He has previously said U.S. military intervention in the Middle East was partly to blame, leading rival Rick Santorum to call him “irresponsible" in a nationally televised debate. Paul drew boos from the audience when he responded.

In the speech at Iowa State, he mocked the federal government’s war on drugs and discussed the properties of hemp. “To get high on hemp you need a cigar as big as a telephone poll,” he helpfully informed the crowd.

The latest Des Moines Register poll found Paul’s support climbed from 7 percent in June to 18 percent last month, but only another 7 percent pick him as their second choice.

“He’s probably hit his ceiling because so many of his views don’t fit the party platform," said Chris Rants, a former speaker of the Iowa House who is backing Romney. “I think he’ll have difficulty branching out beyond his core group of supporters.... Having said that, I think he could do really well this year. I think of all the candidates, he brings the most new people out on Jan. 3 who have never been to the caucus before."

Hundreds and hundreds of college students flocked to Paul’s appearances last week at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. At Iowa State, scores of students were turned away from the packed hall and more than 100 waited patiently after his speech to have a photo taken with him.

Paul, a small, spry man, always looks like he’s wearing his father’s suit and speaks in run-on sentences that contrast with the polished delivery of some of his rivals.

“The other candidates look like typical politicians, they’re not very relatable," said 20-year-old sophomore Matt Hastings, who slapped a Paul bumper sticker across his T-shirt. “Mitt Romney—I don’t get a good vibe from him. He is so uptight."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Paul's home state in the photo caption. He is a representative from Texas.