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Ron Paul's delegate strategy targets the unbound

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.

And it's not just Maine and Colorado. Talking to reporters in January, Benton predicted that the Paul campaign would ultimately "win the Iowa delegation, even though we took a close third place . . . on caucus night." Seventy-five percent of the Minnesota delegates to local party conventions are Paul backers, according to the campaign.

Ultimately, the odds that Paul could get enough delegates to swing the national convention to a vote nominating him are nil. But the more delegates Paul controls, the more of an impact he can have on determining the GOP platform at the convention. Furthermore, if it does come to a brokered convention -- admittedly an unlikely scenario -- the Paul campaign will be ready. Benton refuses to speculate about what the specific odds are that there will be a brokered convention, but does say of the possibility, "We've always seen it as more likely than most people would."

The campaign is also flirting with the possibility that "bound" delegates won't ultimately be bound. "We would like to take a majority of the delegates and so if there is an unbinding after round one, or if there is a rule passed on the floor of the Republican National Convention to unbind the delegates, then the majority of the delegates [in a given state delegation] would be our supporters and we would control that delegation," Benton remarks. He notes the campaign's efforts in Nevada, where delegates are considered bound for the first round of votes: Paul came in third, winning 19 percent of the vote, but the campaign believes it currently controls 60 percent of the delegates. If by some chance those delegates became unbound (and the campaign managed to control 60 percent of the convention delegates), the convention-delegate vote would not mirror Nevada's caucus vote.

Looking ahead, the campaign is particularly targeting Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, North Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri. Most of those states' delegates are bound.

The Paul campaign is frank about its belief that no other campaign is as well set up to acquire delegates.

"We don't think anyone understands or has more experience with the convention process than our professional team," Benton says. "And then also we believe we have a substantially higher level of training and intensity amongst our supporters." That, Benton muses, can "really shift the playing field to our advantage."

Katrina Trinko is a National Review Online reporter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.