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Romney has much to gain from a deal with Ron Paul

Paul could aid Romney's attempt to win over sceptical conservatives.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Getty Images.

We have now entered the stage of the presidential election season in which reporters are getting bored. They have started playing a game called Find the Gaffe.

Here's how you play: When a candidate speaks publicly, pay attention to every sentence, phrase and clause that could be used against him by the opposing campaign.

For instance: Last week, President Barack Obama was explaining why the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 per cent in May, thus raising fears that the recovery is stalling and talk of a dip into another recession. His conclusion was that the public sector has seen significant job loss while the private sector has shown incremental gains. "The private sector is doing fine," he said.

Blammo!

"Are you kidding?" said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The private sector is not doing fine. "Did he see the job numbers that came out last week?"

Mitt Romney rejected the idea increasing the size of government by creating more public-sector jobs:

"He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Fire the beloved firemen! Blammo!

"I would suggest [Romney]'s living on a different planet if he thinks that's a prescription for a stronger economy," said David Axelrod, the president's senior political adviser.

And on it goes. It's enough to make you forget there are other people, other candidates, involved in the election.

You don't hear much about third parties inside or outside the US, but they exist. They are tiny compared to Republicans and Democrats yet they can be game-changers by pulling votes from one of the other candidates. The Green Party's Ralph Nader is perhaps the most famous example. In 2000, he peeled enough Florida votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the win.

Gary Johnson is another. He's the former Republican governor of New Mexico and current nominee for the Libertarian Party. He couldn't gain entry into an over-stuffed roster of GOP candidates, because, well, except for fiscal matters, Johnson isn't much of a Republican: He's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. He supports the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. But! He does want to slash the federal government's annual budget by $1 trillion. For this and (hopefully) other reasons, the Libertarian Party tapped him last month.

When it was clear he wasn't going anywhere as a Republican, Johnson launched a bid for the Libertarian Party's nomination. That meant notifying the Secretary of State of each state in the union that he'd no longer pursue the GOP's nomination. In Michigan, he missed the deadline for withdrawal by three minutes, thus violating a law that bars candidates who lose primaries from switching parties so they can run in the general election.

As of now, Johnson won't appear on the ballot. That's why the Libertarian Party of Michigan is poised to file a lawsuit next week alleging that Republicans in Michigan are reading the law too narrowly (three minutes!) in order to keep Johnson off that state's presidential ballot. The reason, they say, is that Romney fears a libertarian candidate will siphon off votes in a swing state where the margin of victory is likely to be slim. They might be right.

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Meanwhile, another libertarian has set off a firestorm by endorsing the candidacy of Mitt Romney. That would be US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Ron Paul. The endorsement came on Fox News when Rand Paul called for greater "kinship between our families." That was kinda weird but kinda weirder was that Rand's announcement occurred while Dad Paul was technically still running for president. The Revolution was not pleased.

But unlike Obama's saying the private sector is doing fine and unlike Romney's saying the American people want fewer firefighters, Rand's endorsement wasn't a gaffe.

Ron Paul has a history of breaking from GOP ranks when he believes the party is going in the wrong direction. He did it in 1988 when he ran on the Libertarian Party ticket (as Johnson is now) against the Republican Party's Anointed One, George H.W. Bush. This time, it's an inside fight where Paul has captured gads of delegates in caucus states even though he didn't come close to winning the popular vote in those states. With the delegates, Paul hopes to influence the party from its libertarian flank, though no one is sure how he plans to do that. More certain is that Paul has much to bargain with and Rand's endorsement may be a signal that Dad is ready to deal.

Romney, for his part, stands to gain a lot from an association with Paul. For one thing, Romney continues to struggle with conservatives. He can't sway independent voters without getting hammered by conservatives sceptical of his bona fides. No one, however, doubts Paul's conservatism. For another, Romney does not inspire voters, even Republicans. Paul, on the contrary, has built a voracious following.

Time will tell, of course, and the national convention is still a long way off. Meanwhile, it's good reminder that sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, except when it isn't.