Rep. Ron Paul of Texas knows next Saturday's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, will determine much about the future of his Republican campaign for president.
But gauging from the approximately 400 people who turned out Friday afternoon at the American Legion Post in East Aurora to cheer on the self-described "champion of the Constitution," Paul and his supporters think the success of the tea party movement over the past two years has moved him from fringe to mainstream.
"A lot of people try to say Ron Paul is now mainstream," he told an adoring crowd. "But maybe the people who used to be mainstream have to come our way. I think a lot of credibility has been gained for our views."
In his third try for the presidency, Paul has been articulating his libertarian views of government to bigger and more organized crowds who view him as a hero of the tea party movement now established as a major force in U.S. politics.
On Friday, en route to a family reunion in Orchard Park, he took about 30 minutes to outline views ranging from abolishment of the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard to ending the war in Afghanistan.
He reiterated a now familiar message centering around "personal liberty" and said the nation's return to "living within its means" will go a long way toward fixing economic problems that he says stem from a retreat from free market policies.
"The freer we are, the more prosperous we are," he said. "There is no down side to it."
While Real Clear Politics shows him with about 8.2 percent of the vote in its latest report, the Ames Straw Poll will provide the first test of his candidacy and those of the rest of the crowded Republican field.
Paul already is emphasizing the result.
"I'm not saying we're absolutely going to get in first or second," he told reporters after his speech. "All I know is we better do better than last time , or it's not going to be very good."
When asked about his chances of becoming the GOP nominee, he did not hesitate.
"I've got a real good shot," he said.
A former Air Force flight surgeon who later became an obstetrician, Paul has long been one of the nation's foremost libertarian voices, even running as the Libertarian Party's candidate for president in 1988.
But he said Friday that new seriousness surrounding his candidacy and the tea party's ascendency is a "mutual" phenomenon.
"I think it was started in our campaign," he said. "It's mutual, and their biggest emphasis has always been on deficit spending."
Paul argued Friday that the Founding Fathers never intended the government to reach into so many aspects of daily life as it does today. The end of the gold standard moved the nation toward more spending, bigger deficits and reliance on printing more money, he said. He criticized recent government action to shore up bankrupt companies, arguing a free market would have resolved the situation without saddling taxpayers with stakes in foundering firms.
"They've taken all this bad debt, speculation and derivatives and dumped them on you," he said. "The middle class has gotten smaller and poorer. And the jobs were lost and the houses were lost.
"You got the [Great Recession], and the people who gave it to us got bailed out," he added. "There's something awfully wrong with that. The system needs to be changed."
Speaking without notes, he railed against the "unbearable" Patriot Act as an infringement on personal liberty, against the federal government's "war on drugs," against military bases in Germany and South Korea, and against the wars that he said have cost too many lives.
"All that talk we had last week," he said, referring to the debate over raising the debt ceiling, "there wasn't a whisper about cutting militarism. My argument is much more can be achieved with peace than with war."
The all-white crowd seemed to thrive on Paul's message. Many held signs of support, and several cars from the overflowing Legion parking lot carried tea party slogans and flags proclaiming "Don't Tread on Me," a revolutionary slogan adopted by the tea party.
Annie Bice came from Lancaster to hear Paul because she says she views him as "consistent in his message."
"The person now in the White House has shown himself to be very weak," she said. "Ron Paul appears to be very strong."
And Don Abram of Elma called Paul a "down-to-earth person" who will sympathize with small businessmen like himself.
"He identifies with the middle class, which is what this country is all about," he said.
Local tea party figures such as former East Aurora Mayor David J. DiPietro and attorney James Ostrowski also addressed the crowd, while former congressional candidate Jack Davis looked on.
Ostrowski zeroed in on GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who, he said, would not have gathered such a crowd in East Aurora on such short notice. He also warned against another "liberal" Republican presidential nominee like Bob Dole or John McCain.
"Does anyone here think this country can survive another term of Obama?" he asked.
Paul, meanwhile, never ventured too much into the details of his campaign -- who is leading, or money or polls. He concentrated instead on a libertarian message in a state where he said he was surprised to find such a strong response.
"Allow people to run their lives as they please," he summarized, "and not dictate to people how they should run their own intellectual or personal habits.
"It's a moral issue," he added, "that says we are individuals who are born with God-given rights to our own liberty. They don't come from our government."