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A new Public Policy Polling survey has Rep. Ron Paul leading the race for the Iowa caucus with the support of 23 percent of respondents. Mitt Romney is in second with 20 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, and Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry at 10 percent.

The rise of the libertarian, anti-government Paul — who wants to get rid of the federal reserve and hitch the American economy to the gold standard — underscores the fact that, as a result of his robust campaign and aggressive fundraising, he has gone from fringe candidate in 2008 to serious contender in the 2012 race. Paul is the sixth different candidate to lead in an Iowa poll, but with 73 percent of his supporters “firmly committed” to Paul and just two weeks until voting, it seems very possible that an anti-war, anti-marriage politician who was nearly cast out by the Republican Party in 2008 could be the last.

Although media-driven, nontraditional campaigns such as Herman Cain’s and Newt Gingrich’s have gained traction in this election cycle Paul’s surge suggests that tradition on-the-ground organizing still matters in Iowa. The New York Times recently noted that Paul “has a built-in network from 2008 that gives him a decisive organizational edge” over his opponents.

“This isn’t a year-and-a-half campaign,” Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director during the 2008 caucuses, told the Times. “This is a five-year campaign.”

According to the same article, 60 percent of likely caucus-goers have been contacted by Paul’s campaign; that number is the highest rate of any candidate and more than double the number of caucus-goers contacted by Gingrich.

The persistent work of Paul’s campaign is reflected in the PPP survey. 22 percent of respondents said that Paul has run the best campaign in the state, compared to just 8 percent for Gingrich and 5 percent for Romney. Furthermore, among the 22 percent of respondents who said that it’s “very important” that a candidate spends a lot of time in Iowa, Paul leads Gingrich 26 percent to 13 percent, with Romney at just 5 percent.

Paul’s rise has also been fueled by his ability to raise enormous amounts of money quickly, a skill his campaign developed in 2007 and 2008 when it became the main way for donors to stay in the Republican Party and channel their rage at George W. Bush’s spending programs and military policies. Paul — who raised over $4 million over the weekend in his most recent “money bomb” — has raised more money than every Republican candidate aside from Romney and Perry. Paul has used that money to hammer Gingrich, the previous Iowa frontrunner, with brutally negative ads such as this:

Ads like “Newt Gingrich: Serial Hypocrisy” may be having a huge impact in the race; the PPP survey shows that in the past two weeks, Gingrich has been hemorrhaging support in Iowa. Gingrich has gone from first place with 27 percent to third place with 14 percent, and his personal favorability has plummeted from +31 on December 5th (with 62 percent viewing him favorably and 31 percent viewing him unfavorably) to -1 today (with 46 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.) Additionally, only 36 percent of respondents now believe that Gingrich has “strong principles,” compared to 43 percent who don’t.

The ad, which was created by Bush campaign veteran Jon Downs, also help to explain Paul’s newfound legitimacy. In 2008, Paul was a fringe candidate with little money or campaign organization, and it occasionally seemed like he was trying to compete for airtime and ideological points instead of votes.

Now Paul can afford to blanket the airwaves with ads, he has the best organized campaign in Iowa, his libertarian views are embraced by far more Republicans (Paul has been called “the Godfather of the Tea Party,”) and according to Nate Silver’s forecast he has a 44 percent probability of winning the Iowa caucus. At this point, Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination cannot afford to not take him seriously.

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