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Ron Paul's Iowa surge: How will it affect the 2012 race?

The libertarian gadfly has a good shot at winning the first contest of the GOP primary season. That may be good news for Mitt Romney... and President Obama

With Newt Gingrich fading fast, GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul has jumped into the lead heading into the critical Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, according to a new survey from Public Policy Polling. The libertarian congressman from Texas had the support of 23 percent of the survey's respondents, trailed by Mitt Romney (20 percent). Gingrich was in third place, at 14 percent, down from 27 percent two weeks ago. What does Paul's surge mean for the 2012 race? Here, five talking points:

1. The GOP can't ignore Ron Paul
Let's be realistic, says John P. Avlon at CNN. A win in Iowa won't "propel Paul to the nomination." But it would "solidify his status as a significant player at the Republican Convention." Indeed, says David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo. "No shot of winning doesn't mean he's not a factor. And in a year in which all the GOP candidates are deeply flawed, weak, or unknown (usually all three), someone with Paul's loyal base of support, reasonably good name recognition, and consistent record could end up being much more of a factor than people consider."

2. If Iowa picks Paul, Romney will be the nominee
If Ron Paul steals the Jan. 3 caucuses, Mitt Romney will be the real winner, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. You can bet Romney will "run the table as Republicans everywhere else but Iowa recoil in horror." Plus, a Paul victory in Iowa would "push Gingrich off the top-tier media narrative" and deny Newt "an early victory," says Avlon. And remember, next up is the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, where Mitt "has long held a double-digit lead." If Gingrich goes 0-for-2, Romney will have all the momentum.

3. Paul is in for a barrage of ugly attacks
It makes sense that Paul leads in Iowa, says Timothy P. Carney at the Washington Examiner. His supporters have genuine enthusiasm, and that counts in Iowa. But "the principled, anti-war, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media." If he places first in Iowa, he'll be "punished" by conservatives and the liberal media alike, with "ugly" attacks painting him as "a racist, a kook, and a conspiracy theorist."

4. The libertarian might launch a third-party bid
A big reason for Gingrich's fall has been a "month-long onslaught by conservative media and attack ads," says William A. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection. "If Paul is treated as badly or worse than Newt has been treated, expect a backlash." Paul, who has the support of 10 percent of the GOP nationally, would have more reason than ever to "vindicate his name with a third-party run." Of course, that would dilute the Republican vote and lift President Obama to victory.

5. But remember, Iowa doesn't always pick the right horse
The "simple truth about the Iowa caucuses" is that they just "aren't a good indicator of which way the race is going to go," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. That's especially true on the GOP side. "Since 1976, only three candidates who won the Iowa caucuses where there was actually a contest went on to win the nomination — Ford in 1976, Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000." We should listen to the Republican insiders who say Paul's strength in Iowa isn't a big deal. They "sort of have a point."

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