Ron Paul could be Republican spoiler

Ron Paul could be a major spoiler for the other Republican candidates in Iowa — and beyond.

Paul has a devout, energized following and strong organization in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and any candidate who finishes behind Paul in either state could be embarrassed by the results and struggle to recover.

But Paul’s isolationist foreign policy views are in contrast to those of many in the Republican base. Many Republican analysts believe he cannot win the nomination because his support is drawn more from libertarians than traditional Republicans, an ardent but limited pool of voters that is smaller than any significant coalition of Republicans.

“His supporters are very passionate but they’re disconnected from the rest of the Republican voting population,” said Tyler Harber, a Republican strategist who is neutral in the presidential race.

Harber though said that Paul could win or finish near the top in Iowa because of his fervent following and the commitment level it takes to go out and caucus for a full day rather than just cast a ballot.

“All of the campaigns have to take Ron Paul seriously,” he said. “The caucus scenario presents a Paul win opportunity… and he is that wedge — all the other campaigns have to outperform Ron Paul.”

Paul was in a four-way statistical tie for first place with Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich in the latest reputable poll of Iowa Republicans, conducted last week for Bloomberg News. He came within 150 votes of winning the Ames Straw Poll, a major Republican event in the state, in August.

Despite what Republican operatives call Paul’s hard ceiling of support, he is likely to perform well in Iowa. Any Republican candidate besides Mitt Romney who finishes behind him could find it difficult to convince voters and the media that they should be taken seriously going forward.

Iowa’s caucus results regularly force campaigns to admit defeat. But this year the winnowing effect may be more powerful, with a lot of flawed candidates, a wide-open field in the state and no candidates besides Paul, Romney and Rick Perry who have the cash to continue on after Iowa without the money momentum brings.

Romney has a firewall in New Hampshire that is unlikely to break unless he decides to invest heavily in Iowa, raises expectations and fails to meet them, an unlikely scenario. But all of the other candidates who are invested in Iowa must do well to move on.

“Usually I say there’s 3 tickets punched out of Iowa, but this year I think there’s one. Whoever wins or is second to Romney here, that second place finisher tries to coalesce the non-Mitt supporters around him,” said Tim Albrecht, who worked for Romney in 2008 and is Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s (R) communications director.

“I do think that Ron Paul is a big threat to the other candidates… they’re all just mired down there trying to be the alternative to Mitt Romney,” Albrecht said.

Harber predicted a strong Paul showing could help Romney.

“Ron Paul could be the best thing that happened to Romney, he’s the line between the first and second tier,” he said. “He could be the spoiler and separate the rest of the field from Romney, and help give him a good win in Iowa or New Hampshire.”

Paul’s campaign rejected the notion that he wasn’t appealing to mainstream Republican voters.

“Ron is appealing to all Republicans right now. They’ve come around completely to focusing on spending and want serious attempts to focusing on the budget,” said Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. “Ron’s ideas are now mainstream ideas. People need to get out of the mindset of the 2004 election. The Republican Party is now the party of budgetary restraint.”

Because of his strong fundraising, Paul will be able to keep competing in state after state, giving Republican candidates a hurdle to clear in every early voting state.

His campaign has also invested heavily in caucus states, meaning that even if a candidate achieves strong frontrunner status he could be knocked off his game and be forced to address Paul rather than being able to turn towards the general election against President Obama.

Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said that it “would be deadly” for any candidate to finish behind Paul in Iowa or the other early voting states because it would hurt perceptions for that candidate’s electability.

Robinson predicted that “people are going to be like, ‘if you can’t beat Ron Paul… how are you going to beat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUS set to admit fewest refugees in decades: report NRATV host says Obama owes Parkland students an apology over shooting Paltry wage gains, rising deficits two key tax reform concerns MORE?’