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Why is Ron Paul still in the GOP race - and what does he want?

He hasn't won a single state primary or caucus, yet Ron Paul soldiers on in the GOP presidential race. He is quietly amassing delegates to the GOP national convention, but his real aim is to infuse the party with his brand of Republicanism.

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Moreover, if some of those delegates stick around after Paul is out of the picture, they will continue to inject the party with a libertarian brand of Republicanism.

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What, exactly, is "Ron Paul Repub­li­can­ism"? Paul's philosophy is a unique mix of traditional conservatism and libertarianism. A strict constitutionalist, he wants to eliminate five federal agencies, along with the Federal Reserve. Less popular with the GOP are his proposals to end all military engagements overseas, repeal the USA Patriot Act, and end the war on drugs.

Doubling vote percentage in four years

His policy proposals haven't changed much through the years, but his popularity has. When Paul launched his previous bid for the GOP nomination in January 2007, a Washington Post poll put him at just 1 percent. Today, Paul is polling about 10 percent among likely Republican voters, according to Rasmussen, and has polled as high as 24 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire. The forthright gynecologist from Texas is a household name now.

What's more, between his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids, Paul has more than doubled the percentage of votes he's won in many state primaries and caucuses around the country: from 8 percent to 23 percent in New Hampshire, 4 percent to 13 percent in South Carolina, 5 percent to 12 percent in Missouri, and 18 percent to 36 percent in Maine.

That rising popularity – and Paul's avowed loyalty to ideals rather than to any given political party – has some wondering whether the GOP's dark horse will launch a third-party bid for the presidency.

Paul says he won't, though he doesn't rule anything out. Most analysts say it's highly unlikely. But what if?

"It would be devastating to the GOP," says Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee.

Here's how devastating: A mid-December Washington Post/ABC News poll found President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47 percent in a two-way race. Inject Paul as a third-party candidate and Mr. Obama wins, taking 42 percent to Mr. Romney's 32 percent and Paul's 21 percent.

That, in short, is the Republican nightmare scenario and the reason The Washington Post called Paul "the most dangerous man in the Republican Party." It's also the reason Paul may wield more influence in the GOP than his primary and caucus finishes suggest.

Add in media speculation over a Paul-Romney alliance that has each candidate treating the other with kid gloves (which both campaigns have denied), and, the theory goes, whether by threat or pact, Paul is angling for influence.

"He wants to leave his mark," says Mr. O'Connell. "If Romney is the eventual nominee, he wants to have a say in the platform, or a say in the [vice presidency]."

Paul has said as much himself, telling CNN that gaining leverage is a "way for me to promote the things I believe in ... they might even have something in the platform that says, maybe we ought to look at the Federal Reserve and maybe we ought to reconsider and not [go] to war unless we have a declaration of war...."

For Paul, the goal is finding an establishment home for his "fringe" philosophies.

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