On a freezing day in February 2008, just before the Republican presidential caucuses, those doing the "Minnesota hunch" between buildings at the University of Minnesota saw the question scrawled in sidewalk chalk:

"Who is Ron Paul?"

The rhetorical political question evoked "Who is John Galt?" -- the opening sentence of "Atlas Shrugged," the Ayn Rand novel that's an ideological and cultural compass point for many Republicans sharing Tea Party disdain for big government.

Compared to campaign commercials, viral videos, social media and even lawn signs, sidewalk chalk seemed quixotic. But then, so did Paul's calls to cut spending, draw down troops and draw up alternatives to the Federal Reserve Bank.

What was fringe then is mainstream today for many of Paul's rivals for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. With the Texas Republican representative framing the debate, surely no one needs to ask "Who is Ron Paul?" today.

Well, actually, they do -- in part because Paul is the No. 10 newsmaker in the 2012 presidential race, despite losing the Iowa straw poll by only 152 votes, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

Paul was a "dominant newsmaker" (defined as being featured in at least half of a story) just 27 times from January through mid-August, according to Pew. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann were the focus of 120 and 108 stories, respectively.

It's probably to be expected that Paul has received only about a quarter of the attention Romney and Bachmann have. Romney has led in polls and fundraising, and Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, represents the transcendent 2012 story line -- the ascension of the Tea Party.

Rick Perry, the new candidate (and new frontrunner), generated more dominant coverage than Paul (33 stories) despite making his campaign official just a day before the survey ended.

Paul received about 29 percent as much coverage as Donald Trump (94 stories), the reality TV star whose fake candidacy was camera catnip. And Sarah Palin, who like Trump has so far chosen TV over the hustle of the hustings, was in 85 stories.

Paul even trailed candidates known more for their campaign woes -- Newt Gingrich (112 stories), Tim Pawlenty (52 stories) and Jon Huntsman (44 stories) -- than early success.

The press is "frightened by me challenging the status quo and the establishment," Paul told Fox News. More likely, the press is frightened that Paul is the status quo.

As neither the frontrunner nor dark horse, Paul hasn't fit the script of horse-race coverage that obsessively opines on who's up (Bachmann last week), who's down (Bachmann this week), who's in (Perry ... and maybe Palin) and who's out (Paul Ryan ... and maybe Chris Christie).

"This is not Ron Paul's first time around the block. ... And it likely reflects a conventional wisdom that he is really a long-shot candidate to get the nomination or to be president," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of PEJ.

"There's something we call the media primary, where the media begins to winnow the serious candidates. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong. In 2007, there was a lot of winnowing of John McCain."

We all know how that turned out.

How 2012 will evolve is guesswork. But a funny thing happened once the Pew study was released: Paul was noticed for being ignored, both by the mainstream media as well as from those who influence it, like Jon Stewart, who mercilessly mocked the cable and network chattering class for ignoring Paul.

This week, the Paul story line changed. Not only was he rediscovered by reporters, two new polls showed Paul's numbers -- at least against President Obama, if not the GOP field -- make him look less like an also-ran and more like an up-and-comer.

Gallup had Paul down just 2 percentage points to Obama, besting Bachmann's 4 percent gap. (Romney was up 2 percent and Perry was tied.)

One can disagree with the candidate and still agree that the paucity of Paul coverage is a disappointing disconnect with what's happening on the campaign trail.

No, press attention shouldn't be uniformly aligned with polls -- it should reflect the news, which inevitably includes the race itself.

But such disproportionate disinterest in an established candidate suggests that the press is missing a big story, or unwittingly thwarting one.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.