After Ron Paul failed to get the plurality of Nebraska delegates at their state convention this past weekend, some in the media declared him “smoked.” His insurgency had ended. Goodbye, good doctor. In one sense, it was a final loss: Nebraska was the Texas congressman’s last chance to qualify for a nomination (however hopeless) and the accompanying limelight at the convention next month. But Paul is still going to Tampa. If he’s sidelined the way he was in 2008, holding his own events outside the GOP’s tent, it’ll be a story. If he and the Ronulans are embraced by the Republican Establishment, that’ll be a story. So either way, the story’s not completely over–though the headline, says a senior Paul adviser, “is totally to be decided by Mitt Romney.”
For months, Paul’s campaign said it had a long-term delegate strategy: ignore the hype that the campaign was tilting at windmills, methodically pick up the unbound delegates at state conventions and turn the Tampa convention into a brokered battle. “We feel good. We’re where we’d hoped we’d be,” campaign manager Jesse Benton told TIME back in March. “We’re very strongly positioned to win multiple state delegations.” He listed states where he thought they would be competitive: Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Washington–maybe Kansas, Missouri, Alaska and Hawaii. In the end, Paul won a plurality of delegates in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and Louisiana–leaving him one short of the five pluralities required to have his name submitted for nomination.
“We would have liked to have seen him nominated and have the speech and have that moment,” says senior adviser Doug Wead, but many in the campaign were losing hope long before Nebraska’s delegates marched into line behind Romney. They were out-maneuvered by Romney and the GOP Establishment at prior state conventions, Wead says, as early as North Dakota’s meeting at the beginning of April.
And then there was Paul’s dearth of attacks on Romney, compared to the healthy supply he leveled at Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Was this evidence of a deal? If so, what did Paul, who has promised to retire after this campaign, expect to get in return for his gentleness? The answer: Some of his ideas folded into the official party platform and future jobs for some of his staffers, who now work from their homes rather than a campaign HQ. Whatever it was, the implicit threat of running as a third-party candidate was supposed to make the deal sweeter. When asked, repeatedly, about that prospect, Paul always denied it … with the caveat that one never truly knows what the future holds. But that has been an empty threat for the past year, Wead says, and Romney figured that out.
(VIDEO: 10 Questions with Ron Paul)
The question the Romney campaign has in front of them now is whether they need Ron Paul and his supporters in their camp. And that will determine how Romney influences Paul’s role at the convention–either by helping the Congressman onto the stage or by trying to keep him from it. Will Team Romney be insular? Or will it create an all-for-one, one-for-all moment? There are reasons Romney should want Paul on his side. He appeals to young voters and independents, and his supporters generate an enthusiasm rarely matched by Romney’s fans: If the 2012 campaign is a high school, Ron Paul is the wacky teacher that the kids just love, and Romney is the principal.
Then again, Romney only needs to absorb those voters–some of whom will balk at the idea of supporting Romney regardless of what their leader says–if the race with Obama is as close as prognosticators have been suggesting. “He doesn’t need Paul if the unemployment numbers are right,” says Wead. “But if it’s a close one where everything counts, then he needs to co-opt Ron Paul in a big way.”