GOP asks: What does Ron Paul want?

Ron Paul is on track to end the GOP presidential race in second place. But his refusal to directly take on the man who's ahead of him — Mitt Romney — has Republicans wondering: What does Ron Paul want?

Paul has already ruled out a return to the House if he loses the race for the Republican nomination. And at 76, Paul can be ruled out for another presidential bid in the future. 

That has left some in the GOP fearful that with nothing to lose if and when he exits the race, he could lambast the party and Romney for choosing moderation over true conservative principles.

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The Texan has made a habit of voting against legislation supported by his party in Congress, making clear that his allegiance is to his issues — civil liberty, fiscal conservatism and limited government — and not to the Republican Party.

Even worse for Republicans, Paul could launch a third-party campaign for president, which would likely result in siphoning off votes from the GOP nominee and handing Obama a second term.

“I’m asked this all the time and every time my answer is the same. I have no plans on running as a third party,” Paul said on Saturday during a debate in Manchester, N.H.

But there’s another reason for Paul not to burn the house down: his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose political ambitions could be damaged by a father who went rogue.

“There has been a belief that he eventually wanted to take on the mantle of his dad’s brand” of libertarianism, said a Republican strategist with deep ties to Kentucky politics. “But Republicans are really focused on winning the White House. Anything that would jeopardize that would be viewed by folks in the party as unhelpful.”

When he ran for president in 2008, the elder Paul secured just 35 delegates and never won a state, unable to break into the top tier of candidates. But he stayed in the race until July, arguing he was continuing to accrue victories by influencing the ideas and discussions that drove the campaign.  Even after he dropped out, he never backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and was given no platform for his views at the GOP convention.

This time around, Paul and his die-hard supporters are a much larger force to be reckoned with. Paul took third place in Iowa, then second place in New Hampshire, and polls show him on the rise in South Carolina, where voters will head to the polls on Jan. 21.

“If he keeps placing in the top three, he’s going to have between 100 and 200 delegates,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist. “Therefore, he would have some type of recognition at the convention.”

Even GOP kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), who has said he will not endorse, has been praising Paul in the lead-up to South Carolina’s primary and urging other candidates to adopt his fiscal message.

While acknowledging that his goal is to promote his cause — not himself — the congressman has pushed back on speculation that he isn’t really in it to win the White House.

“The best way to promote a cause is to win elections,” Paul said in Iowa after coming in third in the caucuses. He made similar comments in New Hampshire in the lead-up to his second-place finish Tuesday in the first-in-the-nation primary.

Still, Paul has yet to launch the same full-throttle attacks against Romney, the man who stands between him and the nomination, that he has against the lower-tier candidates who pose less of a threat. When Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry went after Romney for saying he liked being able to fire people who provide poor service, Paul even came to Romney’s defense.

There’s no shortage of conjecture about why Paul has gone soft on Romney.

It could be that he feels he’s doing just fine without going negative — especially if his real goal is to call attention to pet issues like standing up to the Federal Reserve that have suddenly entered the national discussion as a result of Paul’s presence in the GOP race. And with Gingrich, Perry and Rick Santorum playing attack-dog roles against Romney, Paul is free to take the high road.

Some say Paul — like the others — is trying to consolidate the support currently splintered among the candidates vying to be the conservative Romney alternative, so it makes more sense to go after them directly. Others say Paul likes Romney personally but loathes many of his other Republican opponents. And some say Paul has gone after Romney just plenty.

“If you look ad the ads that were run in Iowa, Paul worked really hard to differentiate himself from all the candidates, and had no problem pointing out that Mitt Romney supported the bailouts,” said A.J. Spiker, who served as vice-chairman of Paul’s Iowa campaign. 

A spokesman for Paul did not respond to a message asking about Paul’s approach to taking on Romney — or about Paul will do if the former Massachusetts governor does win the nomination.

Romney, meanwhile, has largely left Paul alone when attacking his Republican rivals – he’s said multiple times that he likes Paul — giving the Texas congressman and his issues credibility and respect, even if nobody can quite gauge what he’s going to do next.

“Paul’s kind of like a dangerous animal that needs to be treated with respect,” said a GOP consultant working for one of the 2012 candidates. “People underestimate him at their own peril.”