Why Ron Paul's big wins in Maine and Nevada matter

When Ron Paul delegates show up at the Republican National Convention in August, they may be strong enough to throw the event into disarray – just at the moment Mitt Romney needs to show the GOP united behind him.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
In this Feb. 11 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks to his supporters following his loss in the Maine caucus to Mitt Romney, in Portland, Maine.

Ron Paul scored big victories at the Maine and Nevada Republican Party conventions on Sunday. In both states his forces won the majority of delegates to this summer's national GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.

As we noted Sunday, this means Mr. Paul’s strategy of organizing the grass roots and working arcane delegate selection rules is paying off. And that could mean big trouble for Mitt Romney and his plans to smoothly pivot to a campaign aimed solely at incumbent President Obama.

Yes, Mr. Romney is still the presumptive nominee. It’s highly unlikely Paul will be able to deny the former Massachusetts governor the prize he’s sought for so long. But Paul’s forces aren’t lining up and saluting a Romney victory. When they show up in Tampa in August they may be strong enough, and prepared enough, to throw the convention floor into embarrassing disarray.

“All of this means the GOP can no longer ignore its libertarian ‘fringe.’ On the contrary, it will have to reach out to a new generation of activists who don’t regard religious piety or continual warfare as sacred tenets of conservatism,” wrote Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley in a CNN opinion column last week.

Let’s back up a bit and recap, shall we? On Sunday in Augusta, Maine, Paul supporter Brent Tweed narrowly won the election to chair the state’s GOP convention. From there, he presided over a meeting that ended up with Paul winning 18 of the state’s 24 delegates to Tampa.

Romney narrowly won Maine’s caucus straw poll earlier this year. But that was a nonbinding beauty contest. Sunday’s vote was what really counted.

In Sparks, Nev., the result was even more one-sided. Paul supporters won 22 of 25 delegates up for selection. But Nevada’s caucuses, unlike Maine’s, were binding on delegates. Some delegates were also awarded on an at-large basis. The bottom line: In the first round of voting in Tampa, 20 Nevada delegates are bound to Romney, and eight are free to vote for Paul, no matter their personal preference.

But that may not be the full story. Paul’s forces are not bound to make it easy for Romney to coast to victory, as delegate selection expert Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist, writes on his Frontloading HQ blog.

Paul’s highly organized campaign continues to amass what Mr. Putnam labels “stealth delegates” – delegates pledged to Romney, or one of the withdrawn GOP candidates – who are personally in favor of the libertarian congressman from Texas. It’s hard to determine how many such folks Paul has, or what they’ll do in Tampa.

For instance, what if Paul supporters who are bound to vote for Romney in the first round by state rules simply abstain from casting their ballots? That might keep Romney under the 1,144 votes he needs to win the nomination – even if he actually (sort of) has those votes in hand!

“This is a tricky maneuver, but not one that is prohibited by the Republican Party delegate selection rules,” writes Putnam in a lengthy post devoted to the ways Paul could make trouble for Romney.

Again, this would be unlikely to prevent Romney from actually winning the nomination eventually. But it would prompt an embarrassing floor fight and expose rifts in the party at the very moment the Romney forces would most want to show a united front to the world.

Another unknown here is whether Paul wants to push things this far. Does he just want a good convention speaking slot, or influence on the party platform? Or does he want to win?

“Is Paul after the nomination? I don’t know. But his supporters sure are,” writes Putnam.

In any case, Paul’s weekend victories have left Romney supporters in Maine and Nevada fuming.

In Maine, Romney backer Craig Cragin called the turn of events at the state convention “bizarre,” according to the Bangor Daily News.

Mr. Cragin also predicted that the Paul people had violated rules in Augusta and thus would not even make it to the national convention in late summer.

“They have so phenomenally screwed this up that they will go to Tampa and not be seated,” Cragin said.

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