On a balmy evening outside an East Aurora American Legion post, about 400 people showed up last August to hear Ron Paul expound on everything from abolishing the Federal Reserve to exiting the war in Afghanistan.

For those subscribing to his brand of politics, it was an inspiring night. The Texas congressman was at his libertarian best.

"The freer we are, the more prosperous we are," he told the crowd. "There is no downside to it."

That same evening, reporters asked about his chances of gaining the Republican nomination for president. "I've got a real good shot," he said without hesitation.

Few pundits are predicting Paul will prevail at the GOP convention in Tampa next year, but just to cause trouble, his Iowa poll numbers are more than healthy. Indeed, The Buffalo News last week ran a front-page story highlighting Paul's strength there.

"The Texas congressman's potential is evident in recent statewide polls that show him in or near second place, trailing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney," the Tuesday story from McClatchy Newspapers said. "A recent Des Moines Register poll even has Paul two points ahead of Romney."

Those same numbers explain the big turnout in East Aurora last summer. Local tea party types got word that Paul would be in town to visit his brother, Jerrold Paul of Orchard Park, and quickly arranged for the rally. With only a few days to publicize and arrange for the event, the big crowd almost overflowed into adjacent Cazenovia Creek.

That was no surprise to Jim Ostrowski, the Buffalo attorney and tea party leader who pulled off the whole deal. And as some Republicans start local organizing efforts for Romney and Gingrich, Ostrowski sees the August event as just the tip of Paul's upstate iceberg. "Just in that crowd, we have about 100 hard-core activists who actually work," Ostrowski said. "We're waiting for Ron to set up shop in New York shortly."

That's a point lost in Romney's $10,000 bets and Gingrich's Freddie Mac fracas. Paul's tea party base in New York could prove potent -- maybe as potent as for the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Carl Paladino (a Gingrich guy) in 2010.

It's a loose organization, for sure. But it is already flowering in Iowa, and waiting to take root in New York. And while the Empire State's April 24 primary may render the whole issue moot if Romney or Gingrich wraps it up early, Ostrowski thinks his candidate is well-poised for Iowa and New Hampshire. "If Ron comes in second or third in both states, he stays in it," Ostrowski said. "He has staying power, and real support everywhere in donations and activists like me."

Some of Paul's ideas are often considered "fringe" by the mainstream Republicans ignoring him and now ganging up on Gingrich. But Ostrowski reasons that if New York's most conservative Republicans flocked to Paladino last year, Paul might -- just might -- note the same success.

"He's controversial," Ostrowski acknowledged. "But people are beginning to think he is right."

Over the last few weeks, the Politics Column has pointed out that Romney is building major support from the local and state political establishment. Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy is expect to soon back Romney, and a major fundraiser is planned here for the former governor in January or February. Paladino, meanwhile, is building local support for Gingrich.

But not much effort may be needed for Paul. If he can summon 400 of his faithful to East Aurora for a summer rally, who knows how many he can draw to the polls for an April primary?