What if Ron Paul wins Iowa – and New Hampshire, too?

Some say a Ron Paul victory in Iowa would damage the reputation of the caucuses as favoring fringe candidates. But that would change if the momentum helps Paul win in New Hampshire, too.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, signs an autograph for a supporter during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Monday.
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Ron Paul is surging in Iowa. In polls of Hawkeye State Republican voters, Rep. Paul has jumped from about 12 percent support on Dec. 12 to 21.7 percent support today, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average. With Newt Gingrich’s Iowa support collapsing, Paul is suddenly the GOP frontrunner there – and the caucuses are only two weeks away.

As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post notes in her “Right Turn” blog, there is now a distinct possibility that Paul will win in Iowa. He’s got both the poll lead and “a ground game with energized followers that is likely to produce results on caucus night,” Ms. Rubin writes.

A Paul victory would burst Mr. Gingrich's bubble, help Mitt Romney by dividing the anti-Romney forces, and make Iowa the object of derision from many Republicans elsewhere, according to Rubin.

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She’s not alone in saying a Paul win would hurt the caucuses themselves. Paul poses “an existential threat” to Iowa’s cherished first-in-the-nation status, write Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in Politico, because he has little chance of winning the GOP nomination. A victory for the Texas libertarian would indicate that the caucuses reward candidates “who are unrepresentative of the broader party,” the pair write.

Hmmm, OK. But what would happen if Paul wins Iowa – and wins the New Hampshire primary, too? Wouldn’t that flip this criticism on its head, and show that Paul is at least as representative of the GOP as, say, Michelle Bachmann and/or Gingrich?

We make this point because winning in Iowa changes how a candidate is perceived in New Hampshire. A victory would boost Paul in the Granite State – and he’s not doing too badly there already.

Right now Paul is third in New Hampshire, at 16.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, and rising. He appears to be benefiting from Gingrich’s slippage in the state.

It’s now just as important to watch Paul’s New Hampshire numbers as those in Iowa, writes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his “FiveThirtyEight” blog.

“Our New Hampshire forecasts now give Mr. Paul about a 17 percent chance of winning the state, but those odds would improve with a win in Iowa,” writes Silver.

By that measure, Paul is still a long shot in New Hampshire, but it’s certainly possible he could come from behind and win. That would bury Gingrich, and throw the Romney camp into Def-Con Five panic. New Hampshire is Romney’s firewall. If he loses there, his path to the nomination becomes formidably steep.

The implications for Paul himself of such a dual victory would be profound, of course. No longer would he be just a cuddly libertarian Jon Stewart loves to have on to talk ideas. He’d be exposed to the full force of his rivals’ negative energies, as Gingrich is at the moment.

Some of that is beginning to happen already. At RedState, poll analyst Neil Stevens writes that Paul is heavily dependent on young voters – as was insurgent Democrat Howard Dean in 2004. That didn’t turn out too well, did it?

Over at the Weekly Standard, journalist James Kirchik writes about the racist language contained in newsletters issued under Paul’s name in the 1980s and ‘90s. Kirchik and others have written about this in years past, and Paul has defended himself by saying that he just didn’t know what ghost writers were producing under his nom de plume.

Even Gingrich has started to take shots at Paul, despite his pledge to run a positive campaign. He’s depicted Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy positions as dangerous to American interests.

“Anyone who refuses to deal with the reality of Iran” and its nuclear technology efforts would put the US at risk, said Gingrich in Iowa on Monday. He did not mention Paul by name, but Paul has consistently said that the US foreign policy establishment appears to be looking for ways to pick a fight with Iran.

In sum, if Paul wins Iowa and New Hampshire, all bets would be off as to how the primary season would unfold from there, and Paul himself would be subject to a level of scrutiny he hasn’t faced before.

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