Why Ron Paul May Cut a Deal with Mitt Romney

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Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul shake hands before the start of the first 2012 Republican presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 13, 2011.

For Ron Paul, victory is finally in sight. No, not a swearing-in ceremony next Jan. 20 or even a single statewide win. Halfway through the primary season, Paul has won only a preference poll in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and he is running dead last in delegates among the four GOP candidates for President. He has spent a lot, if not always wisely: the $31.55 he has dropped per vote (more than even Mitt Romney) is a sum that might shock even a Democrat.

But winning the presidency was never Paul’s foremost goal, and as he nears the end of his last presidential crusade, he has one more chance to promote his ideas. The Republican race is a muddled mess. Even after Romney’s Southern losses, only he has a real shot at amassing the 1,144 delegates required to wrap up the nomination, and he would then face the task of unifying the GOP’s warring factions. Which is why Paul’s campaign has sent discreet signals to Camp Romney that the keys to Paul’s shop can be had for the right price.

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History suggests the two men are already in cahoots. Throughout the primary, Paul has been Romney’s secret weapon. During the 20 GOP debates, Paul attacked Romney’s rivals a total of 39 times while sparing Romney entirely, according to an analysis by the liberal group ThinkProgress. Paul leaped to Romney’s defense when his tenure at Bain Capital and his taste for firing insurance companies came under attack, and skewered a series of Romney antagonists in TV ads. “He is our deputy campaign manager,” jokes one Romney ally.

Paul’s advisers bristle at suggestions that the libertarian icon is in league with the GOP front runner. They say Paul still has a shot at the nomination if he can hold Romney beneath the delegate threshold until Tampa and then force a floor fight that sends delegates fleeing to Paul on a secondary ballot. This may be the company line, but the scenario is improbable enough that even Paul has conceded his “chances are slim.”

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Even as they tamp down rumors of a pact, Paul’s advisers concede that the friendship between Paul and Romney is the initial step toward a deal. And behind the scenes, discussions between the two campaigns — as well as initial discussions with the Santorum and Gingrich camps, according to one Paul adviser — are slowly taking shape.

An alliance could benefit both camps. Paul’s support would go a long way toward helping Romney with a bloc of young Republicans who have been turning out in huge numbers for Paul and who otherwise might stay home in November. It might also help Romney grab all of Paul’s delegates. Such an arrangement would help Paul get what a Romney ally called “an important speaking role at the convention.”

Paul’s camp contends he will exceed the 270 delegates Romney garnered in 2008, which earned him an undercard slot on the penultimate evening in St. Paul. Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College who studies delegate allocation, notes that Paul’s campaign hasn’t furnished evidence to back up those claims. But he says there is a chance Paul could “completely exploit the system and take delegates from caucus states where there’s no written rule to how delegates are allocated.” Paul’s aides say they expect to win a plurality of delegates in a batch of blue-to-purple caucus states where Paul failed to win the popular vote, including Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, Nevada and Washington.

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Paul’s acolytes insist their man cannot be bought. “Romney wants the ring of power. He wants it so bad,” says Doug Wead, a Paul senior adviser. “Negotiating with Ron Paul is very difficult because he doesn’t want anything. If he got the ring, he would throw it into Mount Doom.”

Maybe so, but at 76, Paul is understandably concerned about the future of his movement. Aides say if Paul can’t win the nomination, four legislative priorities would top the Texas Representative’s wish list: deep spending cuts that lead to a balanced budget; the restoration of civil liberties; a commitment to reclaim the legislative branch’s right to declare war, which it abdicated to the executive branch in recent decades; and reforms that shore up the U.S. monetary system, such as an audit of the Federal Reserve or competing-currency legislation. Paul might also be enticed, says campaign chairman Jesse Benton, by the prospect of serving as a presidential adviser, a Cabinet position for someone in his orbit or “perhaps a vice presidency.”

Not for himself, but rather his son. Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and a Tea Party icon, is expected to launch his own White House bid in 2016. Being on the ticket now — or even being mentioned for it — would be a helpful step. Says one Paul adviser: “If you’re talking about putting Rand on the ticket, of course that would be worth delivering our people to Romney.”

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Romney is unlikely to go for that. At the same time, Paul’s backers recognize that selling supporters on an alliance with Romney carries special risks, since Paul’s bond with his backers is predicated on his record of principled stands. A pact would have to be done “very cautiously,” says Benton. “We wouldn’t ask our people to do that if we worried they were just being co-opted or that we were in some way selling out.”

But it may soon be time for Paul’s army to decide if it wants to win or lose in the fall. “There’s clearly something going on between the two of them, and that’s a very good thing,” says David Adams, a Kentucky Tea Party strategist who helmed Rand Paul’s Senate primary campaign. “The main goal is stopping this lurch to the left. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul can go a long way toward healing what ails our nation.”

With reporting by Katy Steinmetz