By John Whitesides
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Could Republican Ron Paul, the libertarian longshot with a loyal army of supporters, steal the first big prize of the 2012 presidential race in Iowa?
While the heavyweight fight between rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney hogs the headlines, Paul has steadily climbed into contention in the state that kicks off the Republican nominating contests on January 3.
Recent polls show Paul in second place in Iowa, behind the surging Gingrich and essentially even with Romney in the shifting Republican race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama.
A surprise win for Paul, still a difficult task, would probably not be enough to turn the political rebel into a viable contender for the nomination but it likely would be enough to halt Gingrich's rapid rise.
Paul, the Texas congressman and doctor, has two big strengths that make him a wild card in a state where the caucus process requires voters to gather with neighbors on a cold winter's night to cast their ballots.
He has an enthusiastic and loyal band of supporters, many young and new to politics, that has grown since his failed 2008 presidential bid. And Iowa political activists rate his campaign organization as the best in the state.
"Ron Paul can absolutely win the Iowa caucuses," said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa. "His people are the most passionate, his support is underestimated and his ground game is the best."
Paul has seen his libertarian platform of limited government, reduced spending and deep deficit cuts become standard Republican orthodoxy since he finished a distant fifth in Iowa in 2008.
While rivals rise and fall and social conservatives search for a favorite to rally around, Paul's Iowa support has steadily climbed. It hit 18 percent in last weekend's Des Moines Register Iowa poll, up from 12 percent in October and 7 percent in June.
"If the caucus were held today, Gingrich would underperform because his organization has not caught up with his poll numbers," said prominent Iowa religious conservative Bob Vander Plaats. "Ron Paul would overperform because his organization is better than his poll numbers."
A strong showing in Iowa would elevate Paul's profile in the party but might not be enough to propel him to wins in later voting states like South Carolina and Florida, where his organization is not as developed.
"That's the big question: He can win here, but can he win anywhere else?" said Craig Robinson, a former state party official who now heads the Iowa Republican website. "I don't think he can win the nomination."
Paul has built an Iowa organization that includes a heavy online presence, numerous mailings and e-mail messages to potential supporters and repeated visits from the candidate, who is back in Iowa on Thursday.
A recent poll in Iowa found two-thirds of those surveyed had been contacted by Paul's campaign. None of his rivals had contacted even half of the respondents.
"We're just doing the traditional grunt work," said Paul's Iowa chairman Drew Ivers, a veteran of four previous caucus campaigns who is a member of the state party's central committee.
"Talking to neighbors, knocking on doors, airing ads and introducing people to the candidate is what a caucus campaign is about," Ivers said.
Paul has five paid staff members in the state but relies heavily on volunteers for neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion. The campaign hopes to unleash hundreds of college students to canvas for support during the Christmas holidays.
Matt DeVries, an electrical engineer in the city of Ankeny, said he and his wife have hosted a dozen people each at several house parties to spread the word about Paul.
"I don't see other candidates speaking to a lot of the same issues," DeVries said. "I've been impressed with the depth and breadth of his knowledge."
Dale Roewe, a fourth-generation farmer from Laurens, heads a "Farmers for Ron Paul" group that he said has 3,000 followers.
"When I first heard him I thought 'here is somebody who is actually preaching the Republican platform,'" Roewe said. "There are still people who wonder if he is a viable candidate, but I think he can attract independents."
HELP FOR ROMNEY
But a Paul win in Iowa would be a big help to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, by stopping Gingrich's momentum heading into the next contest in New Hampshire.
"If Romney doesn't win, his second-best hope is that Paul wins, because Paul won't be able to capitalize on it in other states," said Dave Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
Paul aides noted his candidacy, long ignored by many in the media, has been beset by skeptics from the start. They say Paul has focused in particular on other caucus states, where his passionate support can reap dividends.
"Our campaign is highly organized in over a dozen early caucus states," said Jesse Benton, Paul's national chairman. "We have a comprehensive plan to capitalize on solid finishes on Iowa and New Hampshire and build a winning delegate total."
Paul has spent more than $1 million on television ads in Iowa, including a recent negative spot on former House of Representatives Speaker Gingrich, and ranks behind only Texas Governor Rick Perry in state ad spending.
The spending and campaigning have paid off for Paul, whose isolationist foreign policy and views on keeping government out of personal decisions on issues like abortion and drug use still rankle many rank-and-file Republicans.
Paul, a forceful debater who is not afraid to challenge conventional party wisdom, led the field on several issues in the Register's latest poll. He was seen as the most fiscally responsible and the most principled candidate in the race.
He nearly tied Gingrich among first-time caucus-goers and he led with young caucus-goers and independents. But he also was viewed as the most negative of the Republicans, and he was the second choice of only 7 percent, behind five candidates.
Some analysts said Paul might actually be under-represented in polls because his supporters are often new caucus-goers or young people who sometimes do not show up in poll samples.
While big majorities of caucus-goers say they are still uncertain about their choice, polls find Paul's backers are the least likely to shift to another candidate.
"His supporters are dedicated. They will turn up and they will not change their minds," Peterson said. He helped conduct an Iowa poll last month that found Paul a close second to businessman Herman Cain, who has since quit the race over charges of an extramarital affair.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)