Published: Oct 11, 2011 1:23 AM EDT
Updated: Oct 12, 2011 2:40 PM EDT

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Ron Paul, antagonist of the Federal Reserve and advocate for the gold standard, probably won't capture the Republican presidential nomination. But with his libertarian leanings energizing a small though growing group of passionate conservatives, the quirky Texas congressman is proving to be a force in the 2012 contest.

Four months before the initial voting, Paul is having such a big impact on the race that some Republican operatives are convinced that he will play spoiler in important states, siphoning votes and attention from his rivals for months to come and helping determine the nominee.

He's empowered by unconventional but successful fundraising techniques, a more sophisticated campaign than his two previous attempts at the presidency, and a fiery message he's preached for decades but only now is resonating with Americans concerned about the nation's debt.

In short, he could prove dangerous for the early front-runners, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"I have no idea what exactly spoiler means," Paul said recently while in New Hampshire. "If you're a participant and you have an influence and you win or come close and you influence the debate, I think that's pretty important. So I don't put a negative term on that as spoiling anything. Spoiling their fun? Maybe they need a little spoiling."

It's unclear which rival the 76-year-old Texan stands to hurt the most.

Paul's most devoted followers have been committed to him for years. But the "converts," as the congressman calls them, seem to be growing with little regard for whether their support of Paul unintentionally helps another candidate.

Kate Baker is among the many die-hard Paul supporters in New Hampshire who shrug off the suggestion that their candidate may play spoiler. She holds out hope of victory.

"Ron Paul is doing well enough he has the possibility to win, particularly in key states. This time I can taste success," said Baker, the volunteer head of New Hampshire's Women for Ron Paul Coalition. She also worked to help Paul get elected four years ago.

But for Baker and others, winning almost sounds less important than spreading Paul's message of fiscal discipline and smaller government. That's a pitch he's made for years and one that others suddenly have adopted, sometimes with more success.

"Look at how much the message is traveling right now. He's honest and consistent. That's the kind of person I can put my money and effort behind," said Baker, a 37-year-old Manchester resident. "I vote for Ron Paul on principle."