AMES, Iowa (AP) - Mitt Romney may have some help in Iowa: Ron Paul.
Any rival who drains votes away from the rising Newt Gingrich - as Paul's allies believe he does - could help keep Romney's chief opponent at bay here. But Paul's traditional, all-out campaign in Iowa has pushed the libertarian congressman into second in a key Iowa poll - and the reality is that even if he wins the caucuses, many Republicans say, he likely can't win the Republican presidential nomination.
That means, Romney allies privately say, that Paul's success may be Romney's gain.
Part of it's because Paul has a history of organizing to win straw polls around the country, but earns little attention or credibility as a mainstream candidate in return. He came within about 150 votes of beating Rep. Michele Bachmann at the key Iowa test vote in August - but his near-victory was barely covered, supporters complain.
That same yawn could also greet his performance in the caucuses. And even if he does get the recognition that past surprise caucus performers have found, Republicans say he'd have trouble moving on to challenge Romney in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida the way Gingrich could.
"A Ron Paul rise poses less of a problem for Mitt Romney simply because Ron Paul has trouble expanding beyond his base," said Tim Albrecht, an Iowa operative who worked for Romney in 2008. "If Ron Paul can chip away at Gingrich just enough, he could conceivably win the caucuses, but he doesn't have the longevity of Gingrich."
And if Gingrich does win the caucuses, as recent polls suggest he could, a smaller margin of victory could help prevent the perception of a crushing loss for Romney. While Romney has tried to tamp down expectations that he'll do well here, his campaign has a long-running under-the-radar campaign and recently started airing TV ads. And allies have launched a $3.1 million ad campaign in the state to back Romney and hit Gingrich.
At this stage in the race, the Paul campaign doesn't necessarily see Romney as an ally - but instead as sharing a common enemy.
Paul's allies are relying on data that shows very little overlap between Romney's supporters and Paul's. Because very few Romney backers would pick Paul as their second choice, it likely won't help Paul to go after Romney. But attacking Gingrich has little downside, they believe, because voters who flee Gingrich are as likely to pick Paul as a second choice as they are to pick Romney.
Paul is trying to win Iowa the old-fashioned way. He's spent more than a month and half campaigning here. He's spent more than half a million dollars on ads. His campaign is sending out mail and making phone calls. A recent New York Times-CBS poll showed 70 percent of likely caucus-goers had heard from Paul's campaign in some way.
And Romney allies point out that Paul has a history of outperforming polling. In 2008, the last Des Moines Register poll showed Paul with 9 percent support; he finished in fifth place with 10 percent.
This time, Paul has risen steadily in that poll. A Register poll in December showed Paul in second, with 18 percent support. That's up from 12 percent in October and 7 percent in June.
His support is particularly strong among young people. At least 1,000 students crowded into the Iowa State student union Thursday night to hear Paul's rambling, half-hour speech - and then many waited nearly 45 minutes to have their photo taken with the congressman.
The political operation - new since 2008 - is driven in part by the political operatives who helped Paul's son, Rand Paul, win his Senate seat in 2010. That victory helped teach the Paul's ideological backers how to turn grassroots, movement support into a winning campaign, allies say.
Small lessons from that experience have shown up in Ron Paul's Iowa strategy. For example, he's turned his long, hard-hitting web ads - including the most recent, hitting Gingrich for "serial hypocrisy" - into shorter commercials after emailing supporters to ask for more cash to put them on TV.
That's another secret to Paul's success: A recent plea brought in about $1 million in a day. Paul raised $5 million between July and September. Gingrich, by contrast, ended that period over $1 million in debt.
It also means Paul is likely to remain a force in the Republican Party regardless of his performance in the caucuses simply because new Republican National Committee rules will award convention delegates proportionally. Paul will be able to fund a campaign through the early states, and could potentially draw enough support to affect the convention in Tampa next summer.
"The reality," said Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain's campaign in 2008, "is that candidates who are not going to win the nomination play a very important role in determining who does."