Ron Paul is doing much better in the Republican presidential race than anyone not named Mitt Romney. But even after strong second- and third-place finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, "Paul's insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination may strike some as a lost cause," says Gerardo Orlando at The Orlando Report. Still, unlike four years ago, many Republicans are taking Paul and his devoted following seriously this time around — even though few think the libertarian congressman has any shot at winning the nomination. Here, a look at why Ron Paul might still be a force to be reckoned with:

If he can't win the nomination, why is Paul running?
A cause. Paul and his aides insist that the Ron Paul Revolution will keep on rolling through the GOP primary season, and perhaps all the way to the Republican National Convention in August. If he can win enough delegates, Paul will have leverage at the convention to... do something. "Given everything we know about him, he'll be seeking some sort of major policy statement from the party," Colby College political scientist Anthony Corrado tells Bloomberg. "I suspect that's more important to him than any particularly personal role at the convention or any rules change." Paul seems to be leaning that way, telling CNN he might get "something in the platform that says, maybe we ought to look at the Federal Reserve and maybe we ought to reconsider and not (go) to war unless we have a declaration of war."

How would Paul get the GOP to listen to him?
It's all about the delegates, which are awarded based on a candidate's performance in primaries and caucuses. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination. For the next couple months, every primary and caucus awards its delegates proportionally, before giving way to a winner-take-all system in April. In the coming months, if Paul wins 10 percent of the vote in primaries and 20 percent in caucuses, plus a winner-take-all Western state or two, he could pocket roughly 200 delegates, says Dustin Krutsinger at Caffeinated Thoughts. If a third candidate gives Romney a run for his ample money, Paul's delegates could be a critical tiebreaker. Paul could potentially swing his supporters behind the candidate of his choosing, effectively making him a "kingmaker."

Can Paul really keep racking up delegates?
Quite possibly. Remember, only Paul and Romney managed to get on every state's primary ballot. And "Paul's unexpected momentum may be pushing the campaign to recalibrate its strategy," says Grace Wyler at Business Insider. If Paul "exceeds expectations in South Carolina" on Jan. 21, his campaign believes he can emerge as the sole conservative alternative to Romney, racking up enough votes to "deny Romney the delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at the convention." That would give him real power.

And Paul's fans are important in the general election too, right?
Absolutely, says Peter Grier in The Christian Science Monitor. "Consider this: In New Hampshire, Paul won 47 percent of voters aged 18 to 29." Keeping those voters in the GOP fold is key to "making inroads into Barack Obama's appeal to younger demographics." That's why some GOP stalwarts are making "conciliatory noises about the Paulites," and no longer dismissing them as "cranks, college students in favor of drug legalization, or disaffected liberals." And even if the GOP doesn't keep Paul's voters, they need to keep Paul — the "Republican nightmare" is "Romney as the nominee, and Paul as a third-party candidate."

Would Paul really launch a third-party bid?
He says he has no plans to, but if the Republicans don't "bow to Paul's demands" — whatever they turn out to be — he "may well adjust his thinking on a third-party bid," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. He views his candidacy "as the leading edge of a much larger movement," and if that movement is served better by an independent bid... well, anything could happen. And until Paul makes up his mind, he's "the most dangerous man in (and to) the Republican party."

Sources: Bloomberg, Business Insider, Caffeinated Thoughts, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, No More Mister Nice Blog, Outside the Beltway, The State, Washington Post (2)