Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Texas) is gaining steam in his race for the GOP nomination, up to his highest level yet — 15 percent — in the new Washington Post-ABC News national poll. He trails President Obama by a mere five points among registered voters in a possible general election matchup. But should Paul fall short of winning his party’s nod and opt to run as a third-party candidate, the survey finds he could seriously shake up the 2012 political calculus, largely to Obama’s benefit.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ties Obama at 47 percent among registered voters in the poll, but fully 21 percent of all voters say they’d pick Paul as an independent candidate over either Romney or the president. Obama would win such a three-way match-up by 10 percentage points. The potential damage is less obvious for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who trails Obama by eight points in a two-way contest and 11 points with Paul in the mix.

As a third-party contender, Paul would draw heavily on Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP, and less so from Democratic ranks. As a result, Obama takes a smaller (albeit significant) hit in a three-way race than either of the two leading Republicans.

Romney performs 18 percentage points worse among conservatives when Paul is included as a third party candidate, and Gingrich sinks 13 points among the key Republican group. Obama’s support among liberals drops 11 points with Paul in a three-way race against Romney, with Paul winning more than a quarter of liberal voters.

Would he actually stage a third-party run? Paul refused to rule out the possibility earlier this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying he’s “not even thinking about it.” Nevertheless, Paul refused to endorse John McCain in 2008 and held a rally coinciding with the Republican national convention that year. His heightened national support and still loyal base of supporters could make an independent run more tempting this time around. More than six in 10 Americans reacted positively to the idea of an independent candidate in an October Post-ABC poll.

For more analysis on new Post-ABC poll and Ron Paul, see

Poll: Gingrich and Romney in dead heat nationally

Obama’s approval rating highest since summer and who changed their mind

George Will’s on Paul’s potential as a GOP spoiler.

See the full Post-ABC poll data

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