Julie Jacobson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas speaks to supporters at a rally, Friday, in Pahrump, Nev.

Will Ron Paul be last rival standing to Mitt Romney?

If you sort through the Nevada caucus results, look at this week’s GOP events, and add in a few financial disclosure forms, you can produce a scenario where Ron Paul outlasts others.

Will Ron Paul be Mitt Romney’s last rival standing? We ask that question because if you sort through the Nevada caucus results, look at this week’s GOP events, add in a few financial disclosure forms, and shake, you can produce a scenario where Representative Paul outlasts Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. That would make the Texas libertarian the only non-Romney to run all the way to the Tampa Republican convention in August.

Yes, we know Paul actually placed third in Nevada’s Saturday vote. He’d hoped to do better, placement-wise. He ended up with 19 percent of the vote. Ex-Speaker Gingrich got 21 percent. Mr. Romney reached the 50 percent threshold.

But look at it this way: That 18 percent is four percentage points higher than Paul’s 2008 Nevada vote. It’s also higher than prevote polls had predicted: A Las Vegas Review-Journal survey in late January had him at only 9.2 percent of the vote, for example.

Plus, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out Monday morning, Nevada entrance polls showed something surprising: Paul won among voters who said that the most important quality in a candidate is that they are “a true conservative.”

Paul got 42 percent of that vote, versus 30 percent for Gingrich and 24 percent for Mr. Santorum.

As Mr. Blake notes, Nevada leans libertarian, and that may have been a factor in this result. But Gingrich and Santorum are competing to be the conservative alternative to Romney, aren’t they?

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“This is really a must-have demographic for Gingrich and Santorum, and the fact that neither of them tapped it is bad news for their campaigns and their cases for pressing forward,” writes Blake.

In addition, Gingrich hurt himself with his post-Nevada actions, say some conservatives. He did not place a congratulatory call to Romney. He held an angry, defiant press conference after the vote was in.

“Whether he knows it or not, Gingrich is becoming a caricature of petulance,” writes Victor Davis Hanson in National Review online.

Looking ahead, Paul currently is trailing in polls in Minnesota, which holds its caucuses this week. A Public Policy Polling survey has Paul in fourth, with 12 percent, for example. But Gingrich is sinking rapidly in the PPP data, with Santorum poised to pass him in Minnesota as well as Colorado, which also caucuses Tuesday.

Paul’s dedicated followers usually flood caucus sites. So look for him to do better than predicted in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as in Maine, which will announce caucus straw-poll results on Saturday. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted this week, “Just as in NV, Ron Paul will probably out-perform his pre-election polling in virtually all the upcoming caucuses.”

March may thus see a GOP race where Romney leads, followed by Santorum and Paul, and Gingrich falling. That’s when Paul’s cash comes into play. Santorum may not have enough money to take advantage of such a moment. According to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, he had only about $279,000 in his coffers at the end of the 2011 reporting period. That’s nothing but fluttering moths and a few Canadian quarters, politically speaking.

In contrast, Paul had $2 million in the bank at the end of 2011. Paul has also shown the ability to keep the money flowing in during good times and bad. His haul for the entire cycle has been $26 million, second only to Romney’s $56 million.

For the record, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul are all vowing to stay in the race until the end. But only Paul may have the means and support of enough GOP voters – albeit a minority of Republicans – to do so.

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