Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) on Tuesday took an official step toward running for president, indicating he’s prepared to test how much GOP voters support his libertarian views.

At a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the congressman announced the formation of his exploratory committee, becoming the fifth Republican candidate to do so. The announcement allows him to begin assembling his campaign infrastructure while raising and spending money in anticipation of a formal candidacy announcement.


"One reason why most people expect it to be different is because the country is quite different. ... Millions of people are more concerned about the things I talked about four years ago," he said, when asked about how his 2012 campaign would differ from his last one. "The expectation is that it will be a much more significant campaign if it comes to a campaign announcement."

"I will be very surprised if we don't make that decision one way or the other by the middle of May," he said of his final decision on whether to run.

He also predicted one of President Obama's strongest support groups from the 2008 election won't be a factor next year.

"I think that Obama will not be able to hang on to that enthusiasm of the young people because of what's been going on over the last [several] years," he said.

Many pundits are predicting Paul could loom larger in the Republican field than he did in 2008, when he took 5.6 percent of the primary voting share, bowing out of the race in June of that year. They cite the rise of the Tea Party and the lack of a true front-runner who would crowd out a lesser-known candidate like Paul.

Paul is a staunch opponent of raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which is expected to consume the political debate this summer, and he has differentiated himself from the GOP field by opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has also trumpeted the fact that his push to audit the Federal Reserve has gained steam in Tea Party circles, which will hold major sway in the 2012 GOP primary.

"One that I'm most pleased with is that most Americans now think that the Federal Reserve doesn't do a very good job, and they ought to look into it,” he said Monday night on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” "Have them quit printing money and then maybe the price of oil wouldn't go up."

Paul is likely to compete for the libertarian vote with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R), who announced last week he is running.

Paul, however, is the better-known candidate in the field and could overshadow Johnson with both his name recognition and acumen for online fundraising.

He raised around $28 million in his last presidential bid, mostly from individuals, and developed a rabid and loyal following. He didn’t win a single primary state, but came in first in several straw polls — a pattern he could follow in 2012. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Paul won the straw poll and was warmly received by conservative activists.

His decision to announce his 2012 exploratory committee in Iowa indicates he is looking to make a play in the important early primary state while pressuring other GOP candidates with his unique brand of libertarian conservatism. He came in fifth in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

“Iowa has a special place in American politics, and Dr. Paul is very pleased to announce the launch of his exploratory committee in the capital of the Hawkeye State,” said Paul’s political director, Jesse Benton.

Paul also named three Hawkeye State political veterans to head his Iowa leadership team.

Dr. Drew Ivers, a veteran of four presidential campaigns — including Paul’s 2008 bid — and a leading evangelical figure in the state, will chair Paul’s Iowa committee. He will be assisted by David Fischer and A.J. Spiker.

All three are members of the Iowa GOP’s central committee and have played a role in Paul’s Campaign for Liberty nonprofit group in Iowa.

At the end of the day, however, Paul is not expected to win the nomination.

"He might get a percentage point or two more because of the rise of the Tea Party, but, overall, he will most likely use his views in this campaign as a way to get his message out,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told The Hill.

Bonjean said that potentially successful candidates will not want to adopt Paul’s views because they are too outside the mainstream.

"I don't think he'll have a tremendous impact on the primary at all. I think most primary voters want to select a candidate that will become president of the United States,” he said.

Paul seemed to recognize there is a ceiling to his campaign during his interview with “Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert.

Colbert jokingly asked him during the interview Monday night: "Are you or are you not ready to declare that you will eventually drop out of the 2012 race?"

"I'm on my way," Paul answered. "I'm on my way to making a really important decision very soon, within a year or two."