Rep. Ron Paul's campaign chair Jesse Benton (h/t Andrew Sullivan) is taking a page out of former Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 playbook.
Recall in '08 Huckabee's contention that the GOP primary was indeed a two-man race: between himself and Sen. John McCain. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't figure in it much at all.
Paul campaign's Benton, in a similar vein:
The race is becoming more clearly a two-man race between establishment candidate Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the candidate of authentic change. That means there is only one true conservative choice ...
We urge Ron Paul's opponents who have been unsuccessfully trying to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney to unite by getting out of the race and uniting behind Paul's candidacy.
Sullivan is delighted at the prospect:
I suspect that, at some point down the line, it really will come down to Romney and Paul, simply because Paul has no incentive to quit, is in it for the message, and has enough of a money and organizational base to keep going.
Romney looks unstoppable, but what will happen if — as one can expect — Paul continues to challenge Romney in a two-man race? You could see some interesting rebellions in unlikely places. Romney and the GOP establishment will put a lot of pressure on Paul, and perhaps his senator son, to get him to drop out. Or they might have to make a concession: a convention speech on the Federal Reserve, perhaps? (They won't concede on war, unfortunately, but they'll have a hard time scripting Paul if they do give him a slot.)
Here's my takeaway: In some important respects—especially the idea that laissez-faire, Spencerian Social Statics principles are something like an inviolable sacramental seal of political economy—Paul's values are different than mine. As a conservative, I generally don't care for political movements that consider themselves "dangerous," let alone revolutionary. I think his views on monetary policy are daffy.
But I like his demeanor—guileless and earnest and cheerful. I like his willingness to gore the sacred cows of the Washington defense establishment. I like that he's attracting young people and independents to his cause.
I don't think I could in good conscience vote for him in the Virginia primary, but I like the idea that he'll remain a thorn in the side of the Beltway plutocracy (even as I believe his policies would, in practice, only further enrich the plutocracy).
Here's the thing: I don't think he will prove to be much of a thorn. His vote-hauls of 20-25 percent look impressive now because the field is so divided; it really does look, to the naked eye, like he's "nibbling at [Romney's] heels." However, when the likes of former Sen. Rick Santorum, Gov. Rick Perry, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drop out the race—which they will begin to do after the South Carolina primary—I'm certain the vast majority of that vote will accrue to Romney, not Paul.
It's true that Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls show Paul doing well among those who want to vote for a "true conservative." But the lion's share of Paul's support is coming from young, independent, nonwealthy voters. I don't think it's an insult to these voters to surmise that they're attracted largely to Paul's antiwar rhetoric, not so much his uncompromising notion of economic-liberty.
When GOP primary voters "come home" and coalesce around Romney—and they will—we'll soon be looking at many lopsided primary victories in which Paul's real-but-limited support looks punier than it does right now.
At that point, it's not going to look like much of a "two-man race."