Put together Murdoch's Fox News, a mid-May debate between Republican presidential candidates and the state of South Carolina, and you have a hotbed of stupidity. But to the fury of the Republican organizers, there was an intrusion of rational thought in the person of Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas, classed as a rank outsider in the nomination race.

            Texas used to send true individualists to Washington, D.C. One of the brightest moments of my early years, visiting the nation's capital, was watching Rep. Wright Patman, head of the House Banking Committee, tell the red-faced chairman of the Federal Reserve he deserved to be locked up in the penitentiary.

            Paul is the last of the breed. As a small-government tight-money Republican this gynecologist-obstetrician (4,000 babies claimed as a career total) regularly votes No on pork barrel projects that would put money into his own district. But as a Republican in the isolationist, libertarian tradition he also votes No, sometimes alone among the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, on war funding, on laws allowing U.S. presidents to order arbitrary imprisonment, "coercive interrogation," and suspension of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

            The throng in Columbia, S.C., cheered Giuliani, Romney and others as they roared their support for torture and rule by emergency decree. In the "war on terror," anything goes. Only Paul told the crowd and the TV cameras that No, torture is wrong and the Constitution is paramount.

            Paul was asked if 9/11 changed anything. U.S. foreign policy, he answered, was a "major contributing factor. Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack[ed] us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East … So right now we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting."

            Next came the question, had the United States invited the attacks. "I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, 'I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier.'"

            Giuliani saw his chance. "That's really an extraordinary statement. As someone who lived through the attack of Sept. 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for Sept. 11." There were howls of approval for Giuliani, though, in fact, Paul hadn't said anything about an invitation.

            In the post-debate commentaries Giuliani was hailed for his coup and Paul ridiculed as a nut and apologist for terror. There were demands he be thrown out of upcoming presidential debates. But even as Fox's pundits tossed Paul on their horns, the instant poll totted up the numbers. Of the 40,000 viewers expressing an opinion, 29 percent reckoned that Massachusetts governor (and Mormon) Mitt Romney had done best. Second came Ron Paul, with 25 percent, ahead of Giuliani with 19 percent. The most pro-war of the lot, McCain, got 5 percent.

            This is the second time Paul has scored big in such debates, and it points to a potential crisis of credibility for both the Republican and Democratic parties. A majority of Americans -- 65 percent and up -- hate the war in Iraq and think the U.S. troops should leave. But the leading candidates from both parties fence-straddle at best, and also parrot Giuliani on the "war on terror." Hence the popularity of Ron Paul, as soon as he gets a national venue. The same happened to a Democratic outsider, Mike Gravel, even as his party votes Bush the money to go on fighting the war.

            There's a good deal of evidence that to win Congress or the White House the Republicans need to hold the libertarian "undecided" bloc -- overwhelmingly antiwar -- which defected to the Democrats last November. So with every saber-rattling speech to Republican zealots the major Republicans candidates seal their party's fate next year. Paul will probably have dropped out by then, but he's already made his point, just like another presidential outsider did, back in the Vietnam years: Dr. Benjamin Spock, another career baby-deliverer.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.