Ron Paul's delegate strategy targets the unbound

Paul speaks to his supporters following his loss in the Maine caucus to Mitt Romney Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland, Maine.
AP Photo

According to the media narrative, Ron Paul lost in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine.

According to the Paul campaign, the contests in those states have only begun.

"We're trying to take delegates and delegations," says Paul national campaign chairman Jesse Benton of the campaign's strategy. "Obviously, we want to do as well as we can in the beauty contests, like Maine's beauty contest, but the most important thing is that we're electing a majority of delegates as Ron Paul delegates to state conventions."

The Paul campaign calls Maine's caucuses a "beauty contest" because the Pine Tree State's 24 delegates aren't bound. If delegates aren't bound, those delegates can choose to vote for whichever candidate they please at the convention, even if their preferred candidate did not win the state. In other words, Paul could theoretically finish dead last in a state's caucuses and yet win most or all of the delegates sent to the convention.

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The campaign refuses to worry about backlash from the party if its plan succeeds, and Paul's percentage of delegates at the convention is significantly higher than his percentage of votes.

"We think that's the way a party should really pick its nominee," Benton says. "We think that the activists that are most tuned in to the issues, most engaged in the process should be the ones selecting the nominee."

Take Colorado, which will be sending 36 delegates to the convention. Of the four candidates, Paul finished last, with 12 percent of the votes. (In contrast, Rick Santorum received 40 percent, and Mitt Romney 35 percent.) But according to the Paul campaign, currently 50 percent of the Colorado county-assembly delegates are Paul supporters.

"We are confident in gaining a much larger share of delegates than even our impressive showing yesterday indicates," said Paul campaign manager John Tate, in a statement after the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and the Missouri primary. Tate gave a few examples to back up his claim, including the results from a precinct in Larimer County, Colo. Paul received 13 out of the 43 caucus votes cast for the top four candidates in the precinct. But there were also 13 county-assembly delegates elected by the precinct, and, according to Tate, every single delegate was a Paul supporter.

Right now, there are around eight to ten thousand delegates and alternates, according to the Colorado Republican party. That number will be whittled down to 36 through a series of contests in the state.

Colorado GOP executive director Chuck Poplstein says that it is possible the Paul campaign could get a disproportionate share of the state's delegates, but notes that the campaign still faces plenty of hurdles. As the number of delegates shrinks, those still running to be one of the 36 will face increased scrutiny. "I think you're going to see campaigns realize these rules, and try to smoke certain people out more and more," observes Poplstein. "When somebody's up there saying I want to be a delegate, they're going to go, 'Well, who are you voting for?'" And while delegates are not bound, they can pledge to vote for a certain candidate if elected a delegate to the convention.

Asked if the campaign can maintain its high percentage of delegates throughout the various states' elimination rounds, Benton acknowledges that that outcome (meaning that 50 percent of the state's total delegates would remain Paul supporters) isn't "automatic," but is confident that the campaign can pull it off. "If we continue to work hard and be smart and understand the process and keep our nose to the grindstone, it will happen," he predicts.

The Paul campaign has focused on diligently training its supporters, who, as any reporter whose e-mail address is public can tell you, are a passionate lot. Paul backers are willing not to just show up and pull the lever for Paul, but also to learn the arcane rules that govern delegate selection.

Consider what happened at one Maine caucus site. Washington Post reporter Felicia Somnez reported that while the original schedule had been selection of delegates first and then the caucus vote, a voter's proposal that the order be reversed was approved by the attendees. Around half of voters had come for the caucus vote, not for the delegate selection. "The state delegate race would be conducted with only about half that many people in the room," Somnez wrote. "And that meant the pool had effectively been reduced to only the most committed voters of an already quite diehard bunch -- among them, many Paul supporters like [Alex] Lyscars who were willing to spend more than four hours at a caucus on a Saturday afternoon and for whom the straw-poll results were secondary to the actual delegate race."

After Maine's caucus, the state GOP called Romney the caucus winner. But the Paul campaign had a different spin on the outcome. "We are confident we will control the Maine delegation for the convention in August," said Benton in a statement issued that night. The campaign estimates that about 75 percent of the state's current delegates are Paul supporters.