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Paul's serious challenge in Iowa could rock the GOP race

By Shannon Travis, CNN Political Reporter
December 15, 2011 -- Updated 1937 GMT (0337 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Polls show Newt Gingrich ahead, with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battling for second place in Iowa
  • Paul's supporters wonder if he could win a general election, and the candidate doubts his stamina
  • A win in Iowa would give Paul momentum heading into New Hampshire

(CNN) -- What if Ron Paul rocked the political establishment, silenced the naysayers and spoiled the party for Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney by winning the Iowa caucuses?

"I think I have a good chance," the Republican presidential candidate told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room" on Wednesday.

"I'm not saying that I'm not... working on a daily basis, you know, I'm assuming I'm going to win this thing," Paul said. "I'm assuming we're going to do very, very well and have a much better showing than anybody has given us credit for the past year."

In that past year, many political observers did not give Paul much credit. Back then, Romney appeared near invincible, Michele Bachmann basked in the glow of a key Iowa straw poll win, Gingrich's campaign was left for dead, and many conservatives hailed Rick Perry as a sort of political messiah.

All that has changed.

Several polls show Gingrich ahead, with Romney and Paul battling -- or tying -- for second place in Iowa. Yet given uncertainty over the depth of support for Gingrich and Romney, there is a very real chance for an Iowa caucus win from the unconventional Paul, an 11-term Texas congressman who's running as a change agent. He's a tea party favorite who has run for president twice before, and a man whose libertarian leanings urge pulling all U.S. troops from foreign deployment and deep and controversial spending cuts. He believes so much in scaling back government involvement in peoples' lives that he says if people choose not buy health care insurance -- or even drink raw milk -- they should be able to and suffer the consequences of their own actions, come what may.

Paul's supporters wonder if he could win a general election, and the candidate himself doubts his stamina in what could be a long GOP primary fight.

But what would a Paul caucus win mean for Gingrich and Romney?

For one, it would give the Texas congressman momentum heading into New Hampshire and other early contests and reshuffle the deck of frontrunners. But would it validate Paul's unique brand of conservatism that urges an end to the IRS and the Federal Reserve but also bucks GOP national security and foreign policy orthodoxy? Would it confirm that Republicans are deeply undecided over whom to support? Or would a Paul win simply mean that Paul is better organized?

"One thing we know about Republicans this year: They are disenchanted with their entire field of candidates," said Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos. "If Republicans are so dispirited that turnout is low, Ron Paul could win. You know his voters will wade through snow, sleet and mind-numbing political rhetoric to get to the polls."

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Though Castellanos believes it's more likely Paul will finish second to Gingrich, he still conceded, "Iowa could be anybody's race."

GOP political analyst Rich Galen gives Paul a better shot.

"If Paul wins Iowa -- which is possible, trending toward probable -- then both Gingrich and Romney get a pass heading into New Hampshire," Galen said. "Paul's support is about three yards wide and a thousand feet deep. He has worked Iowa hard and his anti-Newt ads ... are having an effect."

Yet Galen also added: "If Paul wins, then whoever comes in second -- assuming its Gingrich or Romney -- will 'win' having beaten the other. So, whoever comes in third under this scenario is the loser."

If Paul does manage to pull off an upset, credit a decent campaign war chest, hard-hitting ads against his rivals, and an impressive campaign organization in the Hawkeye state.

When CNN asked Drew Ivers, Paul's Iowa state chairman, to compare the Paul operation to rival camps in the state, Ivers was boastful.

"I would say we're probably a little bit better organized," he said. "And the fact that we ran four years ago, that's been a plus. He's not an unknown entity."

Other than Romney, Paul is the only candidate among the crop of GOP White House hopefuls who ran for president in 2008. But unlike Romney and Gingrich, Paul has long had offices and a ground game in Iowa.

"We're in better shape than we were four years ago, as well," Ivers said, citing caucus readiness for Paul in most of Iowa's 1,784 precincts.

And Ivers also weighed in on the impact of Paul's ranking in the caucus outcome.

"If we could come in with a good, solid third-place showing, that would potentially leave Gingrich and Romney in their current struggle: back and forth," Ivers said. "But if we come in ahead of either one, I think it's going to be more detrimental to them than us. Simply because they're perceived as the establishment, you know, the front-runners.

"For Ron Paul to come in and beat either one of them, that sort of shakes the establishment. It's going to shake people up. [Many people will say,] 'Wait a minute. This is not supposed to happen. A humble congressman from Texas isn't supposed to beat the brilliant speaker of the House... or he's not supposed to beat the governor of Massachusetts. And so that will be a dramatic showing."

CNN's John Helton contributed to this report

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