Ron Paul and his campaign have made early states like Iowa central to their strategy and have lashed out against rising contender Newt Gingrich. Yet does a Gingrich loss to Paul help Ron Paul or Mitt Romney more? As Chris Cillizza reported:

Want to know the key to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney winding up as the Republican presidential nominee? Two words: Ron Paul.

The Texas Congressman’s strength in Iowa — there is a legitimate case to be made that he will win the Jan. 3 caucuses — coupled with his willingness to go after frontrunning former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in often quite personal terms make him perhaps the critical x-factor in Romney’s winning calculus.

Winning in Iowa is — and always was — going to be a very heavy lift for Romney.

His problem in the state this time around is very similar to his problem four years ago. Socially conservative evangelicals simply don’t like or trust Romney — whether that’s because of past flip flops on issues like abortion and gay marriage or because of his Mormon faith is up for debate — and will almost certainly vote for the most viable alternative candidate.

Gingrich is clearly that candidate (although we continue to believe Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the potential to make a late run for that vote) at the moment. And, a win in Iowa would almost certainly catapult Gingrich into contention in New Hampshire, a state where Romney absolutely must win in order to preserve his path to the nomination.

Enter Paul, who may well be the only candidate who can beat Gingrich in Iowa at this point.

While Gingrich is currently leading the Iowa pack, there is a widespread expectation that he will underperform his poll numbers due to the lack of anything close to a first-class organization, and the likelihood that he will take heavy incoming from his rivals over the next three weeks.

Paul has already begun that onslaught, airing an ad in Iowa that paints Gingrich as a serial hypocrite who doesn’t really believe in the conservative principles he is espousing.

And, Paul’s distaste toward Gingrich seems to go beyond the political and into the personal. (Remember that Paul served under Gingrich when the latter was Speaker in the mid 1990s).

The man behind Ron Paul’s ads, Jon Downs, has helped Paul become a serious contender with solid poll numbers well above his previous run at the Republican nomination. As Jason Horowitz explained:

Back in July, Republican ad man Jon Downs met with fellow veterans of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign at a local IHOP for their quarterly professional catch-up.

“He said, ‘Unbeknownst to you guys, I’ve been working and I’ve signed with Ron Paul,’ ” Scott Douglas, a Republican political operative and Downs’s first boss in politics, recalled. “And my mouth dropped.” Douglas said others in the breakfast crew “twitched and laughed” and “rolled their eyes.”

Not anymore. Paul has inched in from the margins to position himself for an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses. His radical economic views are getting a fresh hearing in awful economic times, and his highly organized and well-funded ground game has attracted support beyond his base of young, committed Paul zealots.

But as much as Paul likes to claim that the mainstream has come to him, he has also pursued it. Exhibit A : Downs, a media mercenary who is about as far as it gets from a traditional Paul revolutionary.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a member of his army,” said Downs, a self-described mainstream Republican, as he reclined on a recent evening in his downtown D.C. studio.

But Downs is engineering the campaign’s broadsides.

On Monday, the Paul campaign unveiled a Downs ad eviscerating Newt Gingrich as a Washington insider. An earlier, equally brutal ad out of Downs’s shop prompted a question during Saturday night’s GOP debate. Other Downs productions have included a frenetic, in-your-face spot called “Big Dog,” modeled on Ford’s F-150 truck ads, in which Paul is depicted as having the bite to back up his bark while his opponents are “whimpering like little Shih Tzus.” It received a sendup from Conan O’Brien.

After some tougher attacks between Romney, Gingrich and Paul some analysts think the real winner thus far in the GOP primary is President Obama. As Peter Wallsten reported:

The winner of the Republican presidential primary fight is … President Obama?

That’s the analysis laid out Tuesday by Obama’s top campaign strategists in a presentation that brimmed with confidence over how the shifting political winds in the GOP are boosting the president’s chances of reelection.

No matter whether Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich is the GOP nominee, senior strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager Jim Messina and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter argued that a protracted Republican fight helps Obama in multiple ways.

For starters, the strategists said, the leading GOP candidates are pushing to the right to appeal to their party’s energized tea-party base — alienating General Election voters with hard-line views on immigration, abortion and taxes. Moreover, they said, every week that the Republicans are focused on fighting each other in debates and over the airwaves is another week that Obama’s campaign has to assemble its battleground state get-out-the-vote network.

“They’ve just decided not to do the kind of grass-roots organizing we’re doing,” Messina said.

 Even in Iowa, where the GOP candidates are vying for votes in just a matter of weeks, Obama’s campaign claims to have a bigger operation than any of its potential Republican rivals. “We have more staffers on the ground in Iowa than the other campaigns,” Messina said.

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