Ron Paul rides in the back of a campaign van that’s rolling toward the New Hampshire seacoast for a town hall meeting. He’s fastidious in a dark-blue suit. He’s not the standard presidential candidate — he lacks the factory-built appearance of Mitt Romney or Rick Perry. He’s thin, bony, a bantam rooster. He’s 76 — the only one in the race who was born during the Great Depression.

He doesn’t wear his seat belt. “I never have,” he says, and doesn’t explain whether it’s a matter of back-seat comfort or a deep, philosophical aversion to nanny-state meddling in our lives.

There are a lot of things he doesn’t do, such as make small talk, or touch the tray of cookies at his feet, or doff his suit jacket and try to relax. What he’s eager to do is talk about ideas. The Texas congressman doesn’t have “positions” on “issues.” He has a philosophy.

The one big idea: Government tramples liberty. He’s by far the most radically anti-government candidate in the running. He’d boil the federal government down to a few, skeletal functions. He’d end the welfare state, cut every dime of foreign aid, halt overseas military action and bring home all the troops. He’d return to the gold standard and abolish the Federal Reserve.

Paul opposes not only recent government shenanigans but also stuff that happened 50 or 70 or 90 years ago, such as the creation of Medicare (1965), Social Security (1935) and the federal income tax (1913). He’s against national banks, the first of which was the handiwork of Alexander Hamilton in 1791. You have to crank the time machine into the red zone to get back to where Paul is completely comfortable.

He’s also a force to be reckoned with in this presidential cycle. He has passionate followers from across the political spectrum, a good organization, a distinct libertarian message and plenty of money. He could be a game-changer if he decides to run as a third-party candidate.

No one has ever accused Ron Paul of being a flip-flopper. He has been saying the same things for 35 years. Now world events have conspired to make him look increasingly on point.

He has warned for decades about financial meltdowns and the unchecked power of central bankers, and on this very day, as he’s heading to the seacoast, the Fed has teamed with central bankers overseas to infuse massive amounts of money into the world banking system. It’s an effort to keep Europe’s debt crisis from bringing down the global economy. The stock market is ecstatic. The Dow Jones industrial average has risen 400 points in a single day. Paul is disgusted.

“They’re the professional lenders of last resort, which means they’re the professional counterfeiters,” he says of the Fed. “They’re going to end up buying bad debt. . . . It’s going to end up prolonging the agony, and things are going to get a lot worse.”

Paul is the Alternative Candidate, someone who subscribes to an alternative history of the world. Paul believes that powerful and secretive forces (the Fed being the best example) have manipulated human events and bankrolled wars. He fears that the nation is turning into an Orwellian police state. (“Sometimes it seems as if we are living in a dystopian novel like ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World,’ ” he writes in his most recent book.)

He points out that, even as the Fed is taking this ominous action, the Senate is pushing through a defense bill that he argues would erode American civil liberties. He’s a stalwart opponent of the USA Patriot Act and regularly condemns post-Sept. 11 security measures, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As conditions get worse, you know, they’ll blow up the fears, both economic and the threat of terrorism, so that you can have martial law,” he says.

Martial law? Really?

Sure, he says. “It’ll be an exaggeration of what happened in World War II when they rounded up the Japanese and put them in concentration camps,” he predicts. “Now it’s going to be anybody who speaks out against the government.”

Ron Paul flirts with apocalyptic thinking and opposes many of the political structures of modern America, and yet he has had a life that could be described as the American Dream. From modest ­beginnings he became a highly successful obstetrician/gynecologist, delivered about 4,000 babies, became the patriarch of a sprawling family and was elected to Congress 12 times.

“The American Dream” is the term his wife, Carol, uses to describe their life in the “Ron Paul Family Cookbook.” Not many dystopians have cookbooks, but Paul is one who does. It’s folksy, chatty, filled with pictures of the kids (five) and grandkids (18) and great-grandkids (five).

Carol Paul writes, “Ron and I both understand the dangers America faces and that spurs us both on to do the best job we can for our family, friends and country.” In the very next sentence, she switches to family news: “We have added one more sweet great-grandchild.”

The Pauls live in Lake Jackson, Tex., south of Houston. They sat 30 for their Thanksgiving dinner this year. Nothing fancy, just paper plates and paper cups.

Ron Paul loves to garden. Turn your back, and he’s re-potting a plant. So he’s writing a book called “The Revolution: A Manifesto” one day and dividing bulbs the next.

His favorite movie is “The Sound of Music.”

“He’s ready to make a monstrous change in the world and yet he’s such a down-to-earth person,” says his close friend and fellow doctor Rick Hardoin, a Lake Jackson pediatrician who cared for many of the children in the Paul clan. “Doesn’t sit there and pat himself on the back. He’s a humble person. There’s no pride, none of this ‘I’m so great.’ ”

Another Paul hobby is riding his bike. He doesn’t do so after dark, he says — he’s not crazy.

But no, Hardoin says, Paul never wears a helmet.

Paul is in many ways a throwback. He’s a product of the Depression and World War II. His eldest son, Ronnie, says his father believes in fundamentals such as hard work, earning your way, being thrifty.

“There’s no free lunch,” the son says. “You have to earn it. No one gives you anything.”

Ronald Ernest Paul was born in 1935 in Green Tree, Pa., near Pittsburgh and was raised on a five-acre farm. His was a family of scrimpers and savers — “rather poor,” he said in a debate the other night. But he added: “I didn’t even know it.”

The kids helped out in the family’s dairy business. They had to inspect the glass bottles to make sure they were clean. If they found a bottle that was dirty, they’d get a penny.

He tells this story in his book “End the Fed.” Ron was the middle of five boys and the only one to become fascinated with numismatics. He knew that certain pennies were worth more than their face value because few of them had been minted. He bought a jar of 986 pennies from his father for $20, knowing that a rare 1909 penny was inside. He says he still has those pennies.

He bemoans the decline of the dollar and blames the printing of money “out of thin air.” At a committee hearing in 2008, he said that what a penny could buy in 1909 now costs 47 cents. As a boy of about 8, he says, he asked his older brother Bill why the government couldn’t simply print more money to pay for the war effort. His brother said, “If they did that, the money wouldn’t be worth anything.” Paul, telling this story in the campaign van, adds: “If the two of us could figure it out then, why don’t governments figure it out?”

“End the Fed” discusses his grandparents, one of them born in Germany, another a first-generation German American who visited Germany in the 1920s and saw the disaster of the Weimar Republic’s runaway inflation. His grandmother, he writes, was reluctant to sell a piece of property; she wanted to hang on to it “in case the money goes bad.”

This idea — that the money can go bad — has scriptural echoes. Paul, who was raised a Lutheran and now attends a Baptist church, quotes Genesis 47:15 in the book: “So when the money failed in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, ‘Give us bread, for why should we die in your presence? For the money has failed.’ ”

As a boy, he didn’t think about these things, nor did he ponder them much as an undergraduate at Gettysburg College, but by the time he was in medical school at Duke he “started having a curious mind about what made the world tick economically.” He read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.” He was captivated by the Austrian economics school of thought promulgated by Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard and others. The Austrian school preaches free-market absolutism.

“I didn’t go fishing,” he says. “I’d rather think about these things and read about them.”

Austrian economics continues to occupy a modest niche in the academic world. There’s a cluster of economists at George Mason University who subscribe to those views. Another center for Austrian economics is in Auburn, Ala., at the Von Mises Institute.

The chairman of the institute is Lew Rockwell, who worked for Paul in his congressional office in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rockwell is best known for his blog,, a libertarian watering hole where revisionist history comes mixed with conspiracy theories. (Multiple posts in recent weeks have touched on the JFK assassination and FDR’s alleged foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Paul has written that he visits every day.

His belief system has a whiff of the plot of “The Matrix”: The world we think we see is not the world as it really is.

The country may seem more affluent than it was during his youth, but he sees this as a temporary state. The nation, he says, is “bankrupt.”

“The idea that we’re a lot better off materially, that is true, but it is an illusion,” he says. “Because it’s all on borrowed money.”

He blames the economists who follow the teachings of John Maynard Keynes: “Seventy years of Keynesian economics have taught us to live like drug addicts.”

Does he ever doubt that he’s right about all this?

“No, but I try to instill that doubt in [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben] Bernanke’s mind all the time. I tell him, ‘What if you’re wrong? You just spent 40 years writing all this stuff, and you’re wrong!’ ”

There aren’t many places on the planet that have adhered to Austrian economics. Paul says it has been tried to some extent in Switzerland and Hong Kong. And also Byzantium.

“If you go back to the Byzant, the Byzantine Empire, I think they had like a thousand years that they just used gold coins,” he says. “The Roman empire was stable for a long time, and then they fought too many foreign wars, and they inflated by diluting the metals and clipping coins. They went off sound money.”

The event on the seacoast turns out to be an excellent one, about 200 people filling a generic meeting room in an upscale hotel in downtown Portsmouth. The Paul campaign prefers relatively intimate gatherings. The challenge is finding a way to keep attendance down.

Such is the quirky nature of Paul’s candidacy. His faithful will drive hundreds of miles. They’ll show up wearing their “End the Fed” T-shirts and already knowing exactly what he thinks. But what Paul really needs are the undecided voters. Campaign staffers use direct mail to reach the undecideds and avoid hyping events on the Internet.

The congressman has come a long way from his days as a lonely voice on the fringe of the Republican Party.

“I watched him give speeches to five people and 10 people for many, many years,” his son Ronnie says.

Asked whether he’ll run as a third-party candidate in the fall, Paul said no, then added: “No intention of doing that.” He has run before, in 1988, as the Libertarian Party nominee, and finished a very distant third. Four years ago, he didn’t make a rogue bid for the presidency, but his situation is different this time, because he’s retiring from Congress and wouldn’t have to worry that party leaders would punish him for his apostasy.

His calculations may take into account the long-term interests of his son Rand, now a GOP senator from Kentucky, who is poised to represent the Paul brand in the Republican Party for another generation. If Paul made a third-party run in the fall, his support probably would come primarily at the expense of the Republican nominee.

But these are political calculations, and Paul is not someone who is terribly politic. He’s not a dealmaker and is not interested in forging bipartisan compromises.

When someone in Portsmouth asked him what he’d do to overcome the partisan divide in Congress, he said the gridlock was a blessing. It’s when the Democrats and the Republicans agree on things that he becomes most worried, he said. In his view, the moderates are the most dangerous people in Washington.

Paul has been rooted in place, philosophically. The world of late has been bending his direction. He’s not to be underestimated. He says what he believes, believes what he says.

There is no Ron Paul 2.0. This is the original.