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Paul raised tens of millions of dollars for his 2008 bid — more than some of the candidates who ultimately outperformed him in crucial primary states. He was a GOP pioneer in Internet fundraising and has since maintained a fervent following of grass-roots supporters who have helped him win straw poll victories, including at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.
Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton said his boss will run a 50-state campaign, with particular focus on Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. Benton dismissed suggestions that Paul's impact on the race would be negligible, asserting that the GOP's direction since 2008 has opened a natural leadership spot for the Congressman.
"It's a positive thing that there are more voices communicating what Ron has been saying his whole political career. Ron stands ready to capitalize on that," Benton said. "We're running to win."
In 2008, Paul scored 10 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 8 percent in New Hampshire. He placed second in Nevada and fifth in South Carolina.
Republican campaign strategists remain skeptical of Paul's viability in 2012, despite a political climate that could boost the appeal of his message on fiscal and economic policy. That is partly because his views on foreign and social policy remain problematic with much of the GOP electorate. He wants to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, for example.
And winning the tea party vote will be a goal for each candidate, not just Team Paul.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been wooing tea partyers and joined Paul and wealthy businessman Herman Cain (Ga.) at a recent tea party convention.
"The tea party hard right factor is higher than it was in 2008," said a Republican operative based in Washington, D.C. "But there are also several candidates, including Bachmann, who split that vote."
Hecker cast doubt on the notion that there will be a "tea party candidate" in the GOP presidential primary and said Bachmann faces some of the same doubts among tea party activists as Paul.
"I think it's going to be very hard to find a candidate who unites the movement," Hecker said.
As for Bachmann, "There are a lot of people in the movement that like her. There are some who are very passionate about the movement. I think there are others who question her viability and her experience."
Ambreen Ali contributed to this report.
Correction: May 16, 2011
The article's reference to the $14 trillion federal debt has been corrected in the online version. The article also gave incorrect information about how often a sitting House Member won the presidency. President James Garfield was elected while serving in the House.