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So now it's Ron Paul's turn to be a top-tier Republican presidential candidate? It's about time. He deserves it. The Grand Old Party's 2012 contest is driven heavily by tea party politics. It is appropriate that GOP voters give rise to an original tea partyer, even if he sounds a little cracked.

After all, as some of his many younger fans like to say, the aging Texas congressman and physician is to the tea party what Snoop Dogg is to hip-hop, an "original gangsta." He's got his mind on your money and your money on his mind, especially if he can keep it away from tax collectors.

But few of his supporters expect him to be elected. Like Chicago Cubs fans, the Paulistas don't like to be disappointed, but after two failed runs, they have grown accustomed to it.

Paul's rise comes partly out of desperation as the GOP's conservative "Anybody But Mitt" faction runs out of alternatives to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party establishment's odds-on favorite. A half-dozen other hopefuls soared and flamed out. Paul will fail, too, I predict, as his curmudgeonly pronouncements remind voters why they didn't support him sooner.

I'm not referring to the good doctor's crackpot side, like recently revived reports of his 20-year-old newsletters, sprinkled with racist and anti-Semitic comments. Paul denounces the statements and claims he never read them. Paul is not that much of a details man, he wants us to believe, yet he wants to run the White House. Fat chance.

But Paul says enough these days to alienate fellow conservatives without having to probe into his past.

Gay marriage? "My position on marriage," he said, "is that the government just ought to just stay out of it totally and completely and quit arguing about it."

Marijuana legalization? "The role of the federal government is to protect liberty," he said, including "our right to do to our body what we want, what we take into our bodies."

Foreign policy? He's an isolationist. He criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thinks Iran poses little threat to the United States and wants to end all foreign aid programs, even to Israel. In general, he would repudiate decades of foreign policies supported by both parties.

Even on the party's signature tax-and-spend opposition, Paul goes over the top. His ideal federal income tax cut, he said, would be "before 1913," the year it was born with the ratification of the 16th Amendment.

But few of his exuberant supporters worry much about who will pay the price for Paul's political dreams, since few actually expect him to be elected. They want to "send a message" to the GOP and the nation, they say. But what message does his extremism send?

I can think of two. The first is one that the Paulistas don't want: a short-term disaster for Republican prospects and a big boost to their nemesis, President Obama.

But in the long run, Paul's outside-the-box thinking, like Ross Perot's maverick 1992 presidential campaign, does bring attention to serious fiscal questions that neither party is eager to take on: What should be the role of government in the new century? How big should it be? How can we modernize a social and financial system designed for an earlier industrial age to suit the new global economy?

Those are the questions that this election should be about. Beyond today's partisan cat fights and media grandstanding, we need a serious debate about the country's future between thought leaders on the right and left. Unfortunately, winner-take-all politics keep getting in the way.