Ron Paul may not win the Republican nomination for president _ he has yet to win a single state _ but his strategy of trying to amass delegates in caucus states could land him a prominent role at the party's national convention this summer.
Imagine this: A primetime speech at the GOP convention in which Paul criticizes American military action overseas and condemns the war on terror as an overreach of government authority at home. It's enough to make some Republicans cringe.
But they may have little choice if they want to placate Paul's supporters and keep them from becoming a distraction at an event designed to promote party unity and showcase the nominee, whoever it is.
"Paul is fascinating because good ol' Ron will say just about anything he wants to say at any particular time," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "And the last thing you want somebody doing is going off message in primetime at a convention."
With the exception of Maine, the Texas congressman hasn't come close to winning the popular vote in any of the first nine states to vote. However, campaign aides say their knowledge of caucus rules combined with the enthusiasm of Paul's supporters gives them a unique ability to take advantage of a process that could take several months to sort out.
Paul's campaign manager, John Tate, said he is unsure how many delegates Paul has amassed in caucus states. But, he boldly predicted: "We are confident that when all is said and done and some of these caucus states finish their process that we will end up with either a good plurality or a majority of the delegates out of Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, possibly Colorado."
Paul echoed Tate's prediction for Iowa and Maine in a broadcast interview Sunday. "The bottom line is, who is going to get the delegates and we think we're doing pretty good," Paul said on CNN.
Five caucus states have voted so far. In The Associated Press delegate count, Paul isn't projected to win any national delegates in Iowa, Colorado or Minnesota. He got five out of 28 in Nevada and 10 out of 21 in Maine.
Romney leads the overall race for delegates with 123, followed by Santorum at 72, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 32. Paul is in fourth place, according to the AP count, with 19 delegates. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.
Most primaries and some caucuses are binding, meaning delegates won by the candidates are pledged to support that candidate at the national convention this summer. Political parties in many caucus states, however, use a multistep process to award national delegates.
In those states, The AP uses results from local caucuses to project the number of national delegates candidates would win if they are able to maintain the same level of support throughout the process. Those projections, however, can change because local caucuses are just the first step.
In Iowa, for example, more than 120,000 caucus goers attended local caucuses on Jan. 3. At those caucuses, they voted in a straw poll for president in which Rick Santorum eked out a 34-vote win over Mitt Romney. Paul finished third, about 3,000 votes behind.
The national media focused almost entirely on the straw poll results, but the real work was just beginning. After the straw poll was over, caucus-goers elected delegates to county conventions scheduled for March. Those conventions will elect delegates to congressional district conventions in April and the state GOP convention in June.
Delegates to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla., will be selected at the congressional district and state conventions, and the outcome may look very different from the results of the Jan 3 vote.
In most years, it doesn't matter because the party nominee is obvious by then, so the presumptive nominee gets all the delegates, regardless of who won in January.
Paul's supporters, however, plan to promote their delegates at every level of the process, regardless of what happens in the national campaign, Tate said.
"The ultimate goal is obviously still to win, to get enough delegates there to win the nomination," Tate said in an interview. "I think there's lot of secondary goals, to make sure that our and Dr. Paul's views are represented at the convention, represented in the platform."
"We want to make sure that the Republican Party understands that we are a major part of the Republican Party," Tate added. "We're not to be overlooked; we're not to be taken for granted."
It is not unusual for some losing candidates to have a role at the party's national convention. Hillary Rodham Clinton got a prominent speaking spot at the Democratic convention in 2008. But Clinton had waged an epic primary battle with then-candidate Barack Obama, and her speech was designed to help unify the party.
Many of Paul's libertarian views dovetail nicely with mainstream Republican ideas on limited government and low taxes. But Paul breaks with much of his party when he talks about American intervention abroad and government efforts to fight terrorism at home.
"Following the Constitution, don't police the world, don't participate in all this nation-building, cut spending, cut taxes, cut deficits _ these are traditional Republican principles," said David Fischer, vice chairman of Paul's campaign in Iowa. "I consider the view of these Republicans who want to simply grow the size and scope of the government, that's outside of Republican mainstream."
There is precedent for Paul winning delegates in caucus states where he lost the initial vote. In 2008, during Paul's first campaign for president, he finished a distant second in the Nevada caucuses, which Romney won with more than half the vote. At the GOP state convention three months later, Paul had so many supporters that he was poised to win some of Nevada's national delegates when party leaders abruptly shut down the convention.
Later, the party's executive committee tried to appoint its own delegation to the national convention and Paul's supporters sued. The lawsuit failed but the two sides eventually reached a compromise that gave Paul some delegates to the national convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Paul, however, didn't attend the 2008 convention. Instead, he held a rival rally in nearby Minneapolis.
This year, it might be better to accommodate Paul and his supporters rather than try to shut them out, said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist and former Gingrich aide who is neutral in the 2012 race.
Galen thinks Paul is guaranteed a speaking spot at the convention, and maybe a few concessions in the party platform, as long as they don't deviate too much from mainstream Republican positions.
And what if Paul gets up at the convention and talks about slashing the military or repealing the Patriot Act?
"That's just Ron Paul being Ron Paul," Galen said. "It would make the next morning's papers, but who cares?"