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Why Ron Paul could still rain on Romney's parade

The libertarian candidate who won't go quietly.

Ron Paul, US Republican presidential candidate
Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, talks to the media at the University of Maryland on 28 March 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Rick Santorum is gone. So is Newt Gingrich. Everything looked ready for a general election match-up between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Just one thing, though. Ron Paul. Most of us forgot he was still running, few of us realized he was pulling off a kind of quite coup, and no one seems to know what it means.

Paul is the libertarian candidate whose Old Right platforms were all the rage in 1939. Romney, Santorum or Gingrich have beaten him in all the primaries and caucuses. Even so, he and his small army of supporters, which by some estimates has doubled since his 2008 run for the White House, is slowly staking up delegates against frontrunner Romney in states that held nonbinding caucuses. Over the weekend, he took Nevada and Maine. The weekend prior, he dominated delegates in Louisiana's state convention. Others include Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Alaska.

Last week, news reports came out slowly and then more frequently on what Paul was doing and why he might be doing it. Bottom line: We know how, but not why. We also know that the Republican establishment isn't taking this well. An attorney for the Republican National Committee warned Nevada that it could forfeit its spot at the national convention if Paul walks away a winner. Fox News, when it covered the RNC's threat, summed up the establishment view: Paul's "renegade campaign" hopes to "tinker with the Nevada delegate count" in order to "hijack the GOP convention."

Before I get to why he's doing it, let me explain what he's doing and how. To that end, recall that the Republican Party changed the rules of the nomination process so that delegates to the national convention are awarded proportionally instead of winner-take-all. That is, a candidate gets a percentage of the delegates (the total of which differs from state to state) depending on how much of the popular vote he received. Some states, like Florida, rejected the new rules and remained winner-take-all. In any event, in states that held primaries, a candidate either won all delegates or some, and the results were binding.

This is not the case in caucus states. The results of the popular vote were not binding. So the real work of deciding which delegates were going to represent which candidates was done at the precinct and state levels. That's where the enthusiasm and organization of Paul's campaign was superior to Romney's even though Romney's campaign is much larger and more capitalized. In Nevada, Paul took 20 of 28 delegates. In Maine, it was 22 of 25. In Louisiana, he took 111 of 150 delegates going to that state's convention. And so on.

Still, it's small beer. Romney's delegate count is 865 and he's on course to win the 1,144 needed for the nomination. For Paul, despite a superior organizing effort and huge crowds greeting him at universities and college towns, the total is a mere 93. That's a lot of effort for so little in return.

So what does it amount to? No one knows. Paul could be making a point: the neoconservatives who currently dominate the party should not alienate the party's libertarian wing. It could be a power play. If Paul captures five states, he can force a floor vote at the convention. This vote will be immediately and overwhelmingly stomped, but it might give Paul a chance to push his agenda to a bigger audience. Other than this, most say little will come of Paul's mini-coup, but some are saying time will tell. We don't know which delegates are saying they represent Romney but are secretly supporting Paul for instance. Then there are all those delegates pledged to Santorum and Gingrich. They have only suspended their campaigns. The delegates are up for grabs if they're released.

But there might be another way of looking at this. Paul is already appealing to Tea Party voters. He's also appealing to some left-of-center voters who yearn for an end to the war on terror and the war on drugs (both Paul platforms). Given this, it would be possible, maybe plausible, for Paul to represent an alternative to Romney-Obama.

If rejected at the national convention (and he surely knows he would be), Paul might redirect his support to laying the groundwork for a third party challenge. Even then, he'd be stomped. Some say the point ultimately is about the man's ideas, not the man himself. By spreading his ideas, and converting the formerly unconverted to the joys of cold-blooded Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, Paul could be making a bid for himself as a high-profile party boss.

This is politics, after all -- the art of the possible.

This post was updated at 15.30 on 7 May 2012.