Mitt Romney easily won the New Hampshire GOP primary, as expected. But the performance of second-place finisher Ron Paul was impressive. According to political strategists, Paul's strong showing here and in other primaries could have a significant impact on the general election.
Ron Paul got 23% of the votes in New Hampshire, up from 8% the last time around.
This performance surprised a lot of people, including Greg Valliere, the Chief Political Strategist at Potomac Research Group.
Valliere had expected Jon Huntsman to finish second and Paul third.
Ron Paul's performance in the campaign thus far even appears to have surprised his own advisors. Sources close to the campaign told us that Paul's advisors weren't expecting him to do this well.
And although mainstream media and voters will likely still dismiss Paul as a fringe candidate, it's worth thinking about what his surge means and what impact it will have on the rest of the campaign.
One reason for the surge is presumably that Ron Paul is finally getting his turn as Not Romney--the fantasy candidate that every Republican voter who finds Romney either too liberal or too robotic or both. Almost every Republican in the race has been temporarily embraced as "Not Romney"... and then, just as quickly, been dumped as voters wake up from their dream and realize the truth about the candidate they've gotten in bed with.
If Ron Paul's surge is the result of his turn as Not Romney, he'll collapse in a couple of weeks--the same way Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have all collapsed before him.
Another reason for the Paul surge, however, may be that he is now the only hope of voters inspired by the original Tea Party message of a few years ago: The realization that the country is on a completely unsustainable financial path and that no one in Washington has the balls to really do anything about this.
That's a reasonable concern. And its reasonable for voters to embrace it. And Ron Paul's willingness to repeatedly blast the Wall Street bailouts and the country's fiscal denial has earned him lots of support among his fanatical followers.
Ron Paul's current policies still seem too extreme for him to win the general election. Instantly chopping $1 trillion of government spending, abolishing the Fed, ending all foreign military interventions, and so forth, would be highly aggressive (aggressive, not conservative) changes that could radically alter both the U.S. economy and the global power-balance. And the more Paul's candidacy is taken seriously by the mainstream, the more directly he will have to answer for issues like the offensive and racist newsletters that were once published under his name.
But if Ron Paul does amass enough delegates, which he appears to be on his way to doing (especially now that Florida may split delegates), he will get more of what his advisors appear to believe they wanted from the beginning: Influence.
Because if Ron Paul decides to run as a third-party candidate, which Greg Valliere and other analysts consider possible, he could capture enough of the vote to destroy any chance the GOP has of winning the general election.
A third-party candidate would be a "disaster" for the GOP, Valliere says. Such a candidate could capture about 7% of the vote and cripple the Republicans' chances of winning some key states. So what Paul and other possible third-party candidates do (Valliere includes Sarah Palin as a possibility here) could have a significant impact on the general election. See also: Check Out The Letters I Got When I Said Ron Paul Couldn't Win
More Daily Ticker coverage of the GOP race: