For much of the year, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has been treated by the media like the crazy uncle in the attic – a grizzled 76-year-old veteran politician whose persistent popularity among libertarians and Tea Party conservatives had to be a fluke. After all, how could one take seriously a Republican presidential candidate who wanted to abolish the Federal Reserve, obliterate five major federal departments, abruptly bring home all the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and legalize pot.

But with the Iowa caucuses only weeks away and Paul running a solid second in some polls, news organizations and political analysts are suddenly treating the Texas politicians with greater deference. And some are now wondering whether the cantankerous veteran House member will play spoiler to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former governor Mitt Romney, or even mount a third-party campaign that could indirectly help President Obama in the general election.

“He supported the TARP [bailout],” Paul said. “The other thing really which should annoy a lot of people, he received a lot of money from Freddie Mac.” Paul went on to suggest Gingrich effectively received taxpayer money from the beleaguered and much derided mortgage giant. Gingrich countered with a smile that he was “in the private sector,” prompting Romney to say, “K Street is not the private sector.”