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2012's septuagenarian rock star

Rep. Ron Paul appears at the University of Iowa in Iowa City Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. Ron Paul/Facebook

IOWA CITY, Iowa - It's homecoming night at the University of Iowa. The air is thick with excitement as students flee Friday classes and the cars of alumni returning to campus clog the streets. As night falls, a parade winds through the downtown area.

But at 8 p.m., more than 1,000 students head to the Iowa Memorial Union building for a presidential candidate's speech.

President Obama? Nope. It's Ron Paul.

The 76-year-old Texas congressman says he's seeing a difference of "night and day" between the way his run for the Republican presidential nomination is being received this year and the last time he ran, four years ago. What's particularly striking is the rock star reception he's getting among younger voters, two-thirds of whom voted for Mr. Obama in 2008.

"President Paul" - as students here greeted him with chants - is distinctly lacking in conventional sex appeal. The central tenets of his campaign revolve around wonky issues like monetary policy and a return to the gold standard.

Yet his libertarian message of smaller government and reduced federal spending appears to be resonating with the campus set.

When Paul touched on one of his signature issues, calling for a full audit of the Federal Reserve, the crowd roared its approval.

"End the Fed! End the Fed!" they chanted.

"So you knew the next step," the congressman told the students with a smile. "Very good."

Paul's only overt appeal to student voters here was his call for the abolition of any possibility of a military draft.

Requiring young men to register with the Selective Service means that "the government knows that they own you and they'll take you and put you in the military if they want to," Paul said. "So in a free society, you not only don't have registration but you never have a military draft, either."

At his speech here, he forgot to mention the other plank in his platform aimed at younger voters: His proposed Social Security reform, released as part of his economic program earlier this week. It would allow Americans younger than 25 to opt out of the retirement program.

His well-received speech here capped a day of events in the eastern part of the state where the first votes of the 2012 presidential nominating contest are scheduled to be cast on January 3. Paul's schedule Friday also included a closed-door meeting with the American Wind Energy Association and a talk to plant workers at TPI Composites, a manufacturing firm in East Newton. When one of the workers there asked Paul about the increasingly divisive nature of the GOP debates, the congressman said he was "tempted to walk off the stage" during the first half of the last one, a noisy squabble Wednesday in Las Vegas.

"I thought was disgusting," Paul said.

Although he believes "there are way too many debates," Paul also opined that he's not getting enough speaking time. Even so, he noted that he had seen an uptick in support after each face-off with his Republican rivals, including what he said was a $2.5 million haul from an Internet fundraiser timed to coincide with this week's debate in Las Vegas.

Throughout the day, Paul repeatedly criticized President Obama for celebrating the news that Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi had been killed.

"How can we be proud of that?" Paul asked his audience at the University of Iowa. "No matter how bad a guy he was, it was the responsibility of the people of Libya to make their self-determination and deal with that. But no, we ended up paying for us, it was our bombs and our weapons that did this, and believe me, it will be our burden."