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Will Ron Paul Be the Next GOP Frontrunner?

Ron Paul, the 76-year-old Texas congressman, appears to have a real chance of winning the Iowa caucus on January 3. In the two most recent surveys taken this week, he has moved into second place, leading Mitt Romney by 5 points in each poll and pulling within one point of Newt Gingrich in one of the surveys.

Gingrich may have peaked too soon, providing his competitors enough time to damage him with their ad campaigns. Even worse, Gingrich’s attack on Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital this week, which could have been delivered by the group chanters of Occupy Wall Street, was a good example of his  ability to self-destruct .

New York Times polling guru Nate Silver argues that the Iowa race is very fluid, and that Paul is the latest candidate to demonstrate some momentum. Silver, who weights the most recent poll results much more heavily than earlier ones, believes Paul is headed for a second place showing of 20% or more, and if his momentum continues, and Gingrich’s recent slippage accelerates, maybe in the low 30% range, which would almost certainly mean victory. Silver rates Paul’s chances of winning outright in Iowa at 28%.

After Iowa comes the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire and Paul is hanging in strong, polling in the high teens in 3rd place .

If Paul were to win Iowa, it is certainly possible he could pass Gingrich for second in New Hampshire. But winning New Hampshire is not out of the question, either. If Mitt Romney’s numbers continue to trend down in Iowa, and he finishes a very weak 4th or 5th , which would be a real blow to maintaining his position as one of the national frontrunners,  a Paul victory in Iowa might give him enough of a pop in New Hampshire to win there too.

Could Ron Paul be the new GOP front runner after New Hampshire?  Why not? Just a month back, Herman Cain, who has never won an election of any kind, was the hot candidate in the GOP field, hitting 30% support levels nationally and higher than that in several states. The GOP pre-primary action has been a non-stop roller coaster with the Republican faithful falling head over heels first for one candidate (Bachmann) and then another (Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and now Paul), so long as the candidate is not named Mitt Romney. The volatility has been enormous. Both Perry and Cain had large rapid surges in support before almost all of their support disappeared just as quickly.

Ron Paul, I think, is a different type of candidate than the others who have flirted with the conservative base of the party this cycle. His support has been fairly steady, much like Romney’s, but has grown of late as the number of undamaged alternatives to Romney shrinks. If Gingrich  becomes the latest one to play Humpty Dumpty, Paul is likely to be one of the prime beneficiaries.

A survey of how supporters of Gingrich, Romney, and Rick Perry respond  to positive and negative ads for their candidate as well as for other candidates demonstrates Gingrich’s vulnerability. The survey by Evolving Strategies indicates that nearly half of Gingrich’s supporters might abandon him after seeing a tough negative ad. The study suggests Romney would benefit from a  Gingrich decline, but did not test how much Ron Paul would benefit.

In essence, alone among the candidates in the  field this cycle, Paul seems to start with a base, and only adds to it. Nationally, Paul is still in third place, far behind both Gingrich and Romney, but his national numbers will rise quickly if he wins in Iowa and gets first or second in New Hampshire. A week before the Iowa caucus in 2008, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by almost 20 points nationally and in New Hampshire. Within days of his solid Iowa victory, Obama was in the lead in the polls both in New Hampshire and nationally  (Hillary’s tearful “I care so much” routine just before the primary may have helped her eke out a narrow win in the Granite State).

Where does Paul go after New Hampshire, assuming he has had a wild and successful ride in the first two contests? Could the GOP voters have such a death wish that they would nominate Ron Paul?  In 1992, nineteen million people voted for Ross Perot for president. Nineteen million votes in the GOP primaries would get Paul the nomination.

In the end, I think the GOP will nominate a candidate who is more mainstream. The ardently libertarian branch of the party is gaining strength and has overlap with the Tea Party movement, but the Paul campaign has also attracted  a healthy collection of flakes, anti-Semites, and unusually rude supporters who behave like Lyndon La Rouche backers at times. If Mitt Romney were the last man standing versus Paul, I think Romney would win. This is despite the “anyone but Romney” sentiment among some  conservatives and particularly among evangelicals (where there is a healthy level of unhealthy anti-Mormon bigotry at work). Romney has the campaign organization and funding to weather a few early blows. Some of the other contenders — Bachmann, Santorum, and Huntsman — probably do not. John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd were all gone after Iowa or New Hampshire in 2008. The GOP field will shrink pretty quickly after the first two contests .

Ron Paul has almost no chance, were he the nominee, to defeat Barack Obama in the general election. Head-to-head matchups show Paul would be trounced by 10% or more, despite Obama’s mid-40% approval level. But the bigger problem might be a third-party candidacy, particularly if Paul does not like the GOP standard-bearer. And the chances of Paul going the third-party route (he was the Libertarian nominee for President once before in 1988) grow as his visibility grows in the GOP fight for the nomination. The old obstetrician obviously enjoys the spotlight and the national platform to make his case. Paul has already announced he will not be running to retain his seat in Congress.

Were Paul to run on a third-party ticket, he would  do much better than when he ran in 1988. His name recognition is much higher , and he has many more true-believer supporters — an army of sorts built up over the years of campaigns. In a close election, as most everyone expects to be the case in 2012,  Paul could insure Obama’s re-election bid with a third-party candidacy, since far more of his supporters hail from the right side than the left side. Paul does attract anti-war isolationists, but they are found on both sides of the political spectrum today.

The serious GOP contenders need to be thinking of how they can win the nomination, and not antagonize Ron Paul too badly while doing it. If Paul becomes one of the final two or three, as I expect will be the case, the mainstream media will have a field day, thrilled to play up how extreme the GOP has become, evidenced by Paul’s success. A long, drawn-out nominating contest between Romney and Gingrich, or some other pairing, will only add to Paul’s above-the-fray appeal. If the other GOP contenders go after Paul hard, it increases the likelihood of his bolting from the party. The longer Paul stays around, the more Barack Obama and his dismal record as president will escape the spotlight. Obama wants to compete in a beauty contest versus the GOP and its nominee, not a referendum on his governing ability. Ron Paul might make that a lot easier.