As Ron Paul prepares to mount his third campaign for the presidency, he does so from a dramatically better position than he was is at the beginnings of his previous bids.

In 1988, he was a Libertarian shouting from the political wilderness about the supposed sameness of Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis—and not getting much notice.

In 2008, he was a maverick Republican wedged into debates with a crew of credible if uninspired partisans such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. He got notice, mostly from Giuliani, who became increasingly obsessed with the fact that a dissemter from GOP economic and foreign policy orthodoxy had been allowed on the debate stage. But again, Paul was denied the sort of coverage and respect accorded contenders who echoed the party line as dictated by Dick Cheney and the neocon taskmasters.

In 2012, Paul runs as an increasingly iconic Republican with a good many more allies inside the party and a claim to fame that most of his fellow contenders for the GOP nod lack: a job as a congressman that places him in the thick of national debates. Perhaps most significantly, he uses his position in the Congress to embrace positions that, while at odds with Republican leaders, raise the concerns of millions of Americans from across the ideological spectrum.

That does not mean that he is going to secure the Republican nomination. The Grand Old Party does not have a history of nominating candidates who take stands that aren’t preapproved by the Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs who pay the party’s tab—and kindly pick up some of the bills for the Democrats, as well.

With that said, however, there are plenty of reasons why progressives might welcome Paul to the 2012 race.

One need not support the man or his overall platform—which deviates from classic libertarianism on a number of vital social issues  and his antipathy toward entitlement programs makes Paul Ryan sound like a liberal—to recognize the value added to the Republican presidential debates, and the broader discourse, by a candidate who:

1. Has consistently opposed the undeclared wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, siding with Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in struggles to hold Democratic and Republican presidents to account for unlawful and unnecessary war-making.

2. Has worked alongside Congressman Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, to make the case for deep cuts in the Pentagon budget.

3. Has regularly voted with Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and other labor-aligned Democrats in opposition to free-trade pacts that leave workers jobless, shutter factories, batter working-class communities and make a mockery of democratic governance in the US and abroad.

4. Has joined former US Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and Michigan Congressman John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, in raising all the right questions about the Patriot Act, domestic surveillance and abuses of civil liberties.

5. Has partnered with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a chamber’s steadiest advocate of economic justice and social-democratic ideals, to demand transparency and accountability from the Federal Reserve.

6. Has sided with Kaptur. Feingold, Sanders and other critics of bank bailouts that were backed by both President Obama and the Republican leadership of the House and Senate.

7. Has mounted a stronger defense of WikiLeaks and press freedom than any member—Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.

Ron Paul is not a progressive. He takes stands on abortion rights and a number of other issues that disqualify him from consideration by most moderates and liberals. But he cannot be dismissed as just another robotic Republican. Indeed, he is more inclined to challenge to Republican orthodoxy on a host of foreign and fiscal policy issues than Barack Obama. As such, he brings a dimension to the presidential race that would otherwise be missing. And, at some point in some debate, he is going to make Mitt Romney scream.