DES MOINES, Iowa — He could easily win the Iowa precinct caucuses next Tuesday, which kick off the voting for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Yet Ron Paul is largely getting a free pass from his rivals and their supporters, the only top-tier candidate who's escaping the torrent of high-profile attack ads flooding the state's airwaves.
Why? Because none of his competitors sees the Texas congressman as a serious long-term rival for the nomination. One, Mitt Romney, sees a Paul win in Iowa as the next best thing to a Romney win, something that would deny an Iowa launching pad for a more serious long-term challenger such as Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry.
"Ron Paul is actually helping Romney," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican website and former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. "Ron Paul is Romney's greatest ally."
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Gingrich did criticize Paul in an interview this week with CNN, saying he wouldn't vote for Paul if he were the party's nominee. "It's very difficult to see how you would engage in dealing with Ron Paul as a nominee," the former speaker of the House of Representatives said.
And Michele Bachmann hammered Paul's isolationist approach to foreign policy during an Iowa debate Dec. 15.
But neither is backing up those charges with paid advertising. Instead, the ads from candidates and groups that support them barely acknowledge Paul.
One ad being aired by Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney group, continues to blast away at Gingrich as a potentially disastrous nominee. "Know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich's baggage," the ad says. "Newt has more baggage than the airlines."
One aired by Paul himself takes a shot at Gingrich and Romney, referring to them as "the Washington machine" and saying, "Serial hypocrites and flip-floppers can't clean up the mess."
Another from Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry group, also takes a dual shot at Gingrich and Romney.
The only ad now airing that remotely attacks Paul does it obliquely, showing a picture of him alongside pictures of Minnesota U.S. Rep. Bachmann, Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania without naming any one of them individually.
"If Washington's the problem, why trust a congressman to fix it?" says the ad, from Perry, the governor of Texas. "Among them, they've spent 63 years in Congress, leaving us with debt, earmarks and bailouts."
Other ads are purely positive, with those from Gingrich, Romney and Santorum mentioning only the candidates themselves.
It's not that Paul isn't a threat to win Iowa.
Two new polls Wednesday found him neck and neck with Romney atop the field.
One from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Paul with the support of 24 percent of likely caucus attendees, Romney with 20 percent and Gingrich with 13 percent.
Another from CNN showed Romney with 25 percent, Paul with 22 percent, Santorum with 16 percent and Gingrich with 14 percent.
Also, Paul has a deep statewide organization to get people to attend and participate in the caucuses, town hall-like meetings in which it's crucial to know the rules.
His rivals might be hoping that the news media will do the work for them.
Indeed, reporters almost outnumbered supporters in Newton, Iowa, when Paul returned to the campaign trail Wednesday after a Christmas break. They pressed him to comment further on recent reports that Paul newsletters once were tinged with racist sentiment, including one that said 1992 riots in Los Angeles ended only "when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks."
Paul has said he didn't write the passages and was unaware that they were sent out under his name.
More importantly, none of the Republican candidates feels the need to spend any ad money knocking Paul down.
That's most true for Romney and the independent group that supports him.
Long suspect to conservatives, the former Massachusetts governor wants to keep conservatives divided and doesn't want to hasten the day that they coalesce around one candidate, particularly Gingrich or Perry.
Though each has problems — Gingrich also raises alarms with conservatives and Perry stumbled through debates — they have the national name or access to money to wage a long-term challenge to Romney.
That fear was underscored when Gingrich shot up in polls earlier this month and surged in other primary battleground states such as South Carolina and Florida.
Paul, on the other hand, might not be able to rally the conservatives who dominate the party. His vow to slash federal spending by $1 trillion in one year is popular among them. But his promise to pull back U.S. forces from overseas — and keep them home — is anathema in the broader party.
"I don't think conservatives would embrace Ron Paul as the standard-bearer," said Keith Appell, a Virginia-based conservative strategist.
"The calculation is that it's not going to be Ron Paul, so why antagonize his people? They're looking to bring them into their tent later."
The gambit has risks, though.
An Iowa win almost certainly would help Paul raise more money and more volunteers, perhaps enough to challenge someone such as Romney coast to coast through the winter and into the spring. It's notable that Paul was the only candidate other than Romney to qualify for the primary ballot in Virginia, which will vote March 6; it speaks to his organization.
Even if Paul never won the nomination, he could bloody Romney in the process while giving President Barack Obama more time to raise cash and to campaign.
"Ron Paul would raise a tremendous amount of money off a win in Iowa," Robinson said. "What's he going to do with that money? He isn't going to attack (former Utah Gov. Jon) Huntsman. ... They need to calculate what that does for Ron Paul."
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