The Gingrich balloon is leaking air. He is beginning to look more and more like Howard Dean. The latest Rasmussen caucus poll shows him dropping three points behind Mitt Romney (23 to 20) after leading him by 13 points (32-19) just a month ago.

I won't say I told you so, but I did. The nomination process is controlled by ideologues, but even ideologues -- and sometimes especially ideologues -- want to win. Newt Gingrich didn't do a Rick Perry or a Herman Cain in the past month; he didn't mess up on which cabinet departments he wanted to eliminate or which Libya he was being asked about. He faded because the bright lights got too bright. The stories of his finances, some of his wackier ideas and his notorious temper started making the rounds that count, in turn making it far more difficult for his supporters, let alone the undecideds and the leaners, to mount a convincing case that he could beat Barack Obama.

And so Romney, whose numbers have hovered between 17 percent and 21 percent in Iowa for the past five months, jumped to 23 percent. Conservatives who swallowed hard to accept the nouveau conservative John McCain last time around may have to do the same thing with the born-again Romney.

But the fat lady isn't singing yet. If you look at where Gingrich's 12 points and Cain's 10 points went, it seems significant that only three went to Romney. Perry picked up four points. But the biggest "surge" -- if you can call it that -- went to Ron Paul, who picked up eight points.

President Paul? I don't think so. Paul is about to be held under the same bright lights that burned Gingrich, and he's not likely to fare very well when he does. Gingrich may be off the beaten track, but Paul isn't even in the same forest.

Paul is a member of the House of Representatives. No one has been elected president from the House in my lifetime. This is his third run for the presidency. He ran as a Libertarian in 1988 and as a Republican in 2008. According to a scoring system created by the American Journal of Political Science, Paul is the most conservative member to serve in Congress between 1937 and 2002 -- of all 3,320 members.

It's not hard to understand why. Among other things, and this list could get really long, Paul argues that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations. He wants to totally abolish the income tax. He thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an unwarranted intrusion into the labor market. As a doctor, he didn't accept Medicare. As a member of Congress, he refuses a pension. He thinks NAFTA didn't go far enough in promoting free trade.

Running against Paul for president is a Democrat's dream come true. Having him run as a third-party candidate is almost as good. Believe me, Paul won't be taking votes from Obama.

I certainly can understand why some conservatives, frustrated with Romney's moderate record in Massachusetts and uncomfortable with Gingrich's political soft spots, would look at Paul as the "true" conservative alternative.

Equally important, the press needs Paul as much as conservatives do. A nominating campaign that takes days or weeks on the Republican side and doesn't exist on the Democratic side is hardly a way to sell papers, win ratings or keep legions of political reporters and talking heads employed and engaged.

At the end of the day, the question is less about who will be left standing (that would be Romney) and more about who can stand with him for longer than a few weeks. Gingrich has stumbled. Perry fell flat. Michele Bachmann, well, Bachmann's candidacy died almost immediately after it came to life in the Iowa straw poll. Now it's Paul's chance to see his balloon inflate and then flatten.

And then what?

America's political press will not go gently into the night. They need a two-man race, at least, but Republicans are having trouble finding that second man. Will Gingrich re-surge? Will the press give Perry a second chance? Will Paul be able to hang in once the kitchen gets hot?

It would certainly be good for Romney to wrap up the nomination early. But if he does so because the rest of the field is viewed as ridiculously weak, he will be unable to claim the mantle of true triumph over a worthy opponent that propelled Obama last time around. Being the biggest dwarf is not the same as being big enough to be president.



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