The Ron Paul Panic is officially under way.The Texas congressman has been gaining strength in Iowa all year, but the media—and the Republican establishment—have been content to treat him dismissively.Oh yeah. Interesting character. Seems to have tapped into something. Has a cult following. He can’t win the nomination, the refrain goes, but he’s an interesting sideshow.But a couple of Iowa polls showing Paul bursting into first place—past the previously hot Newt Gingrich and the slow but steady Mitt Romney—are forcing the press to take him more seriously.I was struck on a recent visit to Iowa how a crowd of voters reacted approvingly no matter what the 76-year-old candidate said. Cut a trillion bucks out of next year’s budget. Abolish the income tax and replace it with…nothing. Eliminate federal funding even for cancer research; none of the government’s business. Return to the gold standard. Heads kept nodding in a packed library meeting room. Now the press is starting to recycle old stories about Paul, just in case you weren’t paying attention. From Tuesday’s New York Times:“Representative Ron Paul of Texas is receiving new focus for decades-old unbylined columns in his political newsletters that included racist, anti-gay and anti-Israel passages that he has since disavowed.”The Times piece acknowledges that the same material was disclosed during Paul’s 2008 campaign, but never mind, here it is again:“A 1992 passage from the Ron Paul Political Report about the Los Angeles riots read, ‘Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’ A passage in another newsletter asserted that people with AIDS should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because ‘AIDS can be transmitted by saliva’; in 1990 one of his publications criticized Ronald Reagan for having gone along with the creation of the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which it called ‘Hate Whitey Day.’”It’s scary, eye-opening stuff, to be sure. Paul’s position is that he never saw the material in the publications he ran.The NYT piece was prompted by a Weekly Standard story by James Kirchick, who in turn is recycling and expanding his four-year-old scoop:“In January 2008, the New Republic ran my story reporting the contents of monthly newsletters that Paul published throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While a handful of controversial passages from these bulletins had been quoted previously, I was able to track down nearly the entire archive, scattered between the University of Kansas and the Wisconsin Historical Society…Though particular articles rarely carried a byline, the vast majority were written in the first person, while the title of the newsletter, in its various iterations, always featured Paul’s name: Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. What I found was unpleasant…“Racial apocalypse was the most persistent theme of the newsletters; a 1990 issue warned of ‘The Coming Race War,’ and an article the following year about disturbances in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was entitled ‘Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.’ Paul alleged that Martin Luther King Jr., ‘the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours,’ had also ‘seduced underage girls and boys.’…“No conspiracy theory was too outlandish for Paul’s endorsement. One newsletter reported on the heretofore unknown phenomenon of ‘Needlin’,’ in which ‘gangs of black girls between the ages of 12 and 14” roamed the streets of New York and injected white women with possibly HIV-infected syringes.’”The conservative press is leading the charge on this one, obviously concerned that Paul has the potential to tar the Republican Party. National Review Editor Rich Lowry concedes that “the Texas libertarian stands much closer to the emotional center of gravity of the party in his condemnations of government spending, crony capitalism, the Federal Reserve, and foreign intervention.” But then he says:“Paul never knows when to stop. He lets his suspicion of centralized power slip into paranoia worthy of a second-rate Hollywood thriller about government malevolence. In January 2010, he declared: ‘There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup. The CIA runs everything, they run the military.’”You mean that’s not true?But then we get to the heart of the matter: How dare Paul go out, campaign hard, organize the state and threaten to win Iowa?“Iowa caucus-goers are protective of their preeminent place in the nominating process,” says Lowry. “If they deliver victory to a history-making Ron Paul, no one should take them as seriously again.”So if Mitt or Newt wins Iowa, the caucuses are valid—but if Paul pulls it off, they’re a joke?Still, that’s the hot debate right now. Politico’s big headline: “Will Ron Paul Kill the Caucuses?”“The alarms are sounding in Iowa.“Conservatives and Republican elites in the state are divided over who to support for the GOP nomination, but they almost uniformly express concern over the prospect that Ron Paul and his army of activist supporters may capture the state’s 2012 nominating contest — an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.” And what if he does? Here’s a take from Slate’s Dave Weigel:“The conservative press, which has been bored but hostile to Paul all year (just see the National Review’s cover story), will remind its readers that Paul wants to legalize prostitution and narcotics, end aid to Israel (as part of a general no-aid-for-anyone policy), and end unconstitutional programs like Medicare and social security. The liberal press will discover that he’s a John Birch Society supporter who for years published lucrative newsletters studded with racist gunk…“Maybe all of this would drag Paul down. But would it have to? In 2008, the candidate stuck it out through every primary. In 2012, he’ll have more cash than anyone except Romney or Perry—he just raised $4 million in a weekend moneybomb. His supporters will blow off the scrutiny as just so much crap from the corporate media.”The same corporate media that pretty much ignored Paul when he finished a shade behind Michele Bachmann in the Ames straw poll last summer.The Iowa caucuses aren’t very predictive of who will win the nomination. Just ask Mike Huckabee. And no, I don’t think Ron Paul has a shot at the nomination, either. But people in the press have to ask themselves: If Paul wins and we immediately discount it, are we really playing fair?