According to the latest Iowa survey of the Republican presidential field, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is now on top, with 23 percent of likely caucusgoers supporting him. The Public Policy Polling survey puts former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney second (20 percent) and a rapidly falling Newt Gingrich third (14 percent).
A second poll released Monday also has Congressman Paul leading Mr. Romney, 24 to 18 percent. In that poll, by Insider Advantage, Texas Gov. Rick Perry actually comes out 1.5 points ahead of Mr. Gingrich.
And New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver, who has developed his own forecasting model, is predicting a Paul victory in Iowa. That model – which takes various polls into consideration, and weighs them according to accuracy and other factors – now gives Paul a 52 percent chance of an Iowa victory. It assigns Romney a 28 percent chance of winning, and Gingrich an 8 percent chance.
The Iowa caucuses are just over two weeks away, and a lot can change in that time – even in a primary field less volatile than this one has been.
But what if Paul actually wins Iowa?
Few experts believe he has much, if any, chance to win the ultimate nomination. His views – which include abolishing the Federal Reserve, drastically cutting military spending, and dropping any federal role in regulating marriage – are too far outside the Republican mainstream, they say. And despite being called the "godfather" of the tea party movement, an unscientific tea party straw poll taken by phone Sunday night gave Paul just 3 percent of the 23,000 votes cast.
That doesn't mean, however, that he won't be a factor.
An Iowa win would likely carry over to a reasonably good showing in New Hampshire, which has a strong libertarian streak and where Paul is already ahead of Gingrich in the most recent PPP poll.
A Paul win in Iowa – combined with a thumping of Gingrich in New Hampshire – is mostly good for Romney.
The more votes Paul siphons away from Gingrich, the less the GOP right has a viable alternative to Romney. It's hard to see how Gingrich comes off of a poor showing in both Iowa and New Hampshire poised to do well, even though he seems – for the moment – better positioned in the next two contests, South Carolina and Florida.
"In addition to [Romney's] chances of winning Iowa outright, a close second-place finish behind Mr. Paul would be a reasonably favorable outcome for him," writes Mr. Silver in his blog.
Silver adds, though, that a Paul victory in New Hampshire – where Romney is currently favored – could change things somewhat: "Although Mr. Romney might prefer that Mr. Paul win Iowa rather than a candidate like Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Perry who had a potentially broader base of support, all bets would be off if Mr. Paul won New Hampshire too."
It's also good news for Paul, even if it doesn't propel him to the nomination.
Paul's candidacy has always been about changing the conversation and promoting new viewpoints, and a victory in Iowa would give him a far greater platform to promote his ideas.
It's easy to envision a Republican Convention, for instance, in which Paul plays a fairly large role. And a Republican Party that is forced to take Paul seriously rather regard him as a slightly batty uncle.
After months of shifting predictions of who will win Iowa – Paul is the sixth GOP candidate to come out on top of the polls there – could Paul finally be the one who peaks at the right time?