Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, greets supporters at a campaign event at a hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

But, on the eve of the Ames Straw Poll, the first major organizing test of the 2012 Republican presidential race, there is a strain of thinking that Paul could seriously challenge the likes of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for supremacy on Saturday.

“He’s got the supporter passion of a Bachmann with the organization of a Pawlenty,” said one senior Iowa Republican strategist unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. “He builds on 2007 and the caucus last time, and I think he can turn out the 3,000 votes he needs to win.”

The idea of a Paul straw poll victory — while beginning to be discussed more openly — is still far from expected.

Pawlenty has gone all out — organizationally and financially — to make his mark at Ames, recognizing that if he can’t win or come in a very close second it could very well spell the end of his campaign.

Bachmann, too, is making a major play at Ames — her Friday schedule is packed with five events designed to rally supporters in advance of the straw poll — and, if polling is to be believed, she looks something close to a frontrunner in the Iowa caucuses next year.

The conventional wisdom on the ground in Iowa is that Paul, Bachmann and Pawlenty will finish in the win, place and show slots — with Bachmann still regarded as the most likely first place finisher.

But, Paul is clearly hoping to make his mark; his campaign paid $31,000 for the prime spot at tomorrow’s straw poll (right outside the Hilton Coliseum where the voting takes place) — the same plot of land that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney staked out in 2007 when he won the straw poll.

Despite that spending, Paul’s campaign team is doing everything they can to lower expectations.

“Michele is pushing full force, Tim Pawlenty has an expensive team of top-drawer consultants and Mitt Romney, the national front runner, is working hard behind the scenes,” said Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton. “We hope to do well, compete with these big names and finish right there with them in the top four.”

Paul’s chances of pulling off an upset are entirely contingent on the number of people of voting. As he has demonstrated by winning a series of straw votes over the past few years, he has a very dedicated group of supporters who would walk over hot coals — maybe literally — for him.

But Paul has also shown — and he did it again in the debate last night — that he has little interest in expanding beyond that base of people. As the electorate gets larger the ability of Paul’s supporters to dominate it recedes. It’s why he didn’t win a single primary or caucus in the 2008 race.

The operative question in assessing Paul’s chances at winning at Ames tomorrow is just how many people will show up.

Virtually no one expects turnout to come near the 1999 Straw Poll when nearly 24,000 people voted thanks to heavy spending by both then Texas Gov. George W. Bush and wealthy businessman Steve Forbes. Bush won the vote that year with 7,418 votes — a massive total that may not be eclipsed for some time to come.

The two more likely voter universe estimates are 2007 and 1995.

In 2007, 14,000 people voted with Romney emerging victorious with 4,516 votes. (Paul finished fifth in that straw ballot with 1,305 votes.)

In 1995, just 10,500 voted as then Sens. Bob Dole (Kans.) and Phil Gramm (Texas) tied for first place by each winning 2,582 votes.

The 3,500 vote difference between overall turnout in 1995 and 2007 may make all the difference in assessing Paul’s chances of winning.

In a 1995 turnout model, 3,000 votes for any one candidate is likely to win it and several smart strategists in the state believe Paul could get to that number. In the 2007 turnout model, though, 3,000 isn’t enough votes to win — although it would likely guarantee Paul a top three finish.

“Turnout under 12,000 favors Ron Paul,” said one veteran GOP straw poll watcher. “Turnout over 14,000 favors Bachmann.”

There is little expectation that a Paul victory at Ames — even if did come to pass — would mean much of anything in the race to come.

Turnout for next year’s caucuses in Iowa could be as much as ten times that of Ames and, as we noted above, Paul struggles in larger electorates. “He won’t win the caucuses or be the nominee, but it will be a recognition that Iowans are looking for someone who will offer bold answers on our fiscal crisis,” said one Iowa Republican strategist.


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