When Ron Paul’s campaign urged the other GOP candidates yesterday to drop out and endorse him, I wondered if a two man race was really in Paul’s best interest. It’s possible that anti-Romney conservatives will unite behind Paul to defeat Romney. But it’s also possible that Paul is still a step too far for many conservatives. Once their candidates have left the field, they could instead unite behind Romney and his nomination would become even more inevitable than it appears after winning Iowa and New Hampshire.
The other candidates have unquestionably helped hold Romney back from winning majorities in either Iowa or New Hampshire. But are they also holding back Paul? More importantly, if they exit the race will any of them actually endorse Paul and will their supporters unite behind him to defeat Romney?
It’s unclear whether any of the other GOP candidates would endorse Paul. That either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would do so seems unlikely in the extreme. Whatever song they may be singing these days, they have both been solid, card-carrying members of the Republican establishment for a very long time and both their records and their current proposals are far more compatible with Romney’s than Paul’s. That said, the possibility that Rick Perry or Jon Huntsman might endorse Paul isn’t so far-fetched. Perry and Huntsman have both been burned by the establishment this go-round and many of their views are more consistent with Paul’s libertarianism than Romney’s establishment conservatism. It helps, too, that Huntsman and Perry have been among Romney’s most vocal critics throughout this race.
What about the other candidates’ supporters? This is a much more difficult question to answer, because the answer depends a great deal upon why these voters have decided to back their chosen candidates. Take Rick Santorum, for example. If his supporters chose him because they like his social conservatism and interventionist foreign policy proposals, they’re less likely to back Paul and more likely to vote Romney should Santorum drop out. But if Santorum’s backers got behind him merely because they had exhausted their other conservative Not-Romney options they may well decide to support Paul if Santorum drops out. And so it goes with the other candidates as well.
The real question is whether or not conservatives still feel a desperate need to prevent Romney’s nomination. A Gallup poll released on Tuesday found that 59% of conservatives now find Romney acceptable, a higher percentage than any other candidate enjoys — and far higher than Paul who is viewed as acceptable by only one in four conservatives, performing worse than all the candidates save Huntsman. This suggests that any vestiges of conservative agony over Romney’s nomination may well be coming from a vocal minority and that Romney might really have this race wrapped up.
But never underestimate the power of a vocal minority in a presidential race. Committed activists are still determined to prevent Romney’s nomination and they still have time, however limited it may be, to remind conservatives who now find Romney acceptable why they once didn’t. Even as Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was predicting that Romney would win his home state yesterday, he declined to endorse him and offered praise for Paul’s libertarianism — a surprise given DeMint’s previous remarks on libertarianism. NRO ran not one but two posts, from Maggie Gallagher and Daniel Foster, that — while not offering ringing endorsements — suggested it’s time to start taking Paul seriously as the only remaining, viable anti-Romney candidate. Even conservative talk radio host Michael Medved, who makes it clear he’s no fan of Paul’s, offered on Tuesday what he sees as Paul’s way forward in this race.
Will anti-Romney conservatives embrace Ron Paul if the other GOP candidates drop out of the race? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know for sure. But given the other candidates’ poor showings in New Hampshire, maybe it’s time to find out before divided conservative voters hand the nomination to Romney whether they intend to or not.
UPDATE: More from Sen. DeMint today in The Daily Caller, saying that he doesn’t want Congressman Paul to drop out of the race — at least not “until whoever our front-runner is is collecting some of the ideas that he’s talking about.” Meanwhile, a new poll out of South Carolina shows a tightening race. Romney and Gingrich are duking it out for first place while Paul and Santorum are fighting for second, lending credence to the idea that Paul may be better off with the other candidates in the race insofar as they’re holding Romney back from final, decisive victory.