Lost in the debate between Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney over whether the GOP contest is now a two-man race or a three-man race: There’s still a fourth guy.
Ron Paul’s relevance has faded in recent weeks as his campaign fails to secure delegates or poll competitively with the major contenders. While he has placed second in a number of states, he is the only candidate remaining who has yet to win a single contest. On Tuesday, he finished a distant fourth in Alabama and Mississippi, his delegate total stalled at 48, versus 495 for Mitt Romney, 252 for Santorum and 131 for Gingrich.
Paul never was expected to seriously compete for the nomination, and his goal has always been to advance his broader libertarian ideology. He did at one point hold a lead in Iowa polls, and many observers thought his potent grassroots operation might power him to some surprise performances in caucus states.
Instead, his campaign settled into a solid fourth place, and any scraps of media attention his campaign received after Iowa has evaporated. This week the last reporter who was still embedded full time with Paul’s campaign finally left the trail. On Tuesday night, the New York Times writeup of the Alabama and Mississippi results contained 0 mentions of Paul; the Associated Press devoted one sentence — noting his lack of effort in the run-up to the vote. He didn’t fare much better in grabbing their attention on Super Tuesday either: The Times mentioned his total delegate count and, in passing, that he was Romney’s only competition on the ballot in Virginia. That was it.
Campaign spokesman Jesse Benton insists that Paul remains far more competitive than conventional wisdom suggests and that the campaign plans to continue focusing on caucus states, where motivated, well-organized supporters play a disproportionate role.
“We feel good about where we are at,” he told TPM. “We are working our convention programs in our targeted states that have already caucuses and are on pace to accumulate many more delegates than the media is projecting.”
He cited California and Ron Paul’s home state of Texas in particular as two delegate-rich states where the rules might benefit him. In the former, Paul could make a concentrated play for individual congressional districts where delegates are awarded; in the latter, he could leverage a solid performance into a significant haul thanks to its proportional delegate rules.
But these are the kind of rules that Paul has hoped to take advantage of from the beginning, with limited results so far. Nor do the current polls look too good for him: He’s at 8 percent in Texas in a new survey from WPA Opinion Research.
Even if Paul does go on even, say, a modest run of delegate-enhancing finishes, the question then becomes what to do with them.
“Our goal to accumulate delegates and hold the others under 1,144 to force a brokered convention and secure the nomination for Dr. Paul,” Benton said. “Short of that, fallback goals would be cabinet positions for our allies committed to free markets, major platform changes and perhaps the vice presidential nomination.”
While the vice presidency is a stretch (to put it mildly), Paul’s delegates could become especially valuable trading chips should Romney fall just short of the majority needed to clinch the contest heading into Tampa. Last month, Paul began to receive unwanted attention for his warm relationship on the trail with Romney, a distraction from his usual campaign message of gold, non-interventionism and small government. After reports noted that Paul rarely criticizes Romney in debates or ads but rips into his other rivals, Gingrich and Santorum aides both complained about a coordinated effort. Paul and Romney have each denied any kind of tag-team effort, but at the very least seem pretty chummy. It could make for some interesting negotiations if Paul’s delegates truly make him a kingmaker down the line.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.