Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, tries to quiet the crowd at his caucus night rally, Tuesday in Ankeny, Iowa.

Iowa caucus results: Where does Ron Paul go from here?

To hear the Ron Paul people tell it, the Iowa caucus results show that their guy is now the chief alternative to Mitt Romney. But Mr. Paul is still running behind Newt Gingrich in national polls.

Where does Ron Paul go from here? The Texas libertarian didn’t win the Iowa caucuses, of course – he finished third, just behind winner Mitt Romney and virtual co-winner Rick Santorum.

But as the old pundit line goes, there are three tickets out of the Hawkeye State – and Representative Paul got one of them. So he’ll continue to ride his anti-intervention, pro-drug legalization, Fed-bashing campaign as long as his money and volunteers hold out.

To hear the Paul people tell it, their guy is now the chief alternative to Mitt Romney. Mr. Santorum is “a dead end,” according to a piece posted on Paul’s national website. The former Pennsylvania Senator has struggled to raise money and establish an organization outside of Iowa.

“This is a now a two-way race between establishment candidate Mitt Romney and the candidate for real change, Ron Paul,” says the story.

Well, nice try, but we don’t think so. Would this be a good time to point out that Paul is still running behind Newt Gingrich in national polls, with only 13 percent of the GOP vote? Or that he has yet to break single digits in surveys of some important upcoming primary states?

Yes, Paul’s doing better than he did last time, and he’s got lots of cash and committed followers. He could score big in caucus states such as Nevada. But his appeal to actual Republicans is limited. And he is running for the Republican nomination, after all.

“I think Ron Paul is going to be in it for a long time, but I don’t think he’s a viable national candidate,” said Iowa’s veteran GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley on Wednesday during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Just look at the Iowa entrance polls conducted by a media consortium to see Paul’s promise and problems. On the one hand, he won a plurality of men in Iowa – taking 24 percent of the male vote. He was the overwhelming favorite of young voters, winning almost half the ballots cast by people aged 18 to 29.

But scroll down and you’ll see that Paul garnered the support of only 14 percent of self-described Republicans at the caucuses. His vote total was powered by independents – he took 43 percent of the independent vote.

Similarly, his strongest ideological category was moderates. He took 40 percent of the vote of caucus-goers who described themselves as “moderate or liberal”.

Now, does this mean Paul would run well against President Obama in a general election campaign? Perhaps – but he’s got to get there first. And the theme of the GOP primaries so far has been that of a conservative slice of the party searching for an alternative to Mitt Romney, whom they believe to be a closet moderate himself. They are unlikely to coalesce around someone with Paul’s views, particularly his anti-interventionist, dovish foreign policy stance.

“The GOP nominee, whether Romney or Santorum, will be staunchly in favor of a military option, if needed, to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon ... He or she will be opposed to slashing defense,” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin on her Washington Post blog, Right Turn, in a piece titled, “Credit Santorum with sinking Ron Paul.”

That said, Paul’s clearly going to remain a factor throughout the race, perhaps all the way to the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. It’s possible he’ll be a force shaping the GOP going forward. That’s his follower’s dream – and perhaps Mitt Romney’s (or Rick Santorum’s, or Newt Gingrich’s) nightmare.

“If Ron Paul comes to the convention with 100s of delegates – he can veto the veep pick, shape the platform, cause a ruckus in Tampa,” tweeted ABC political reporter Terry Moran on Tuesday night.

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