Can Ron Paul win the Republican presidential nomination? No. Can he win the Iowa caucuses? Sure.

The larger question, then, isn’t what the party intends to do about Paul’s candidacy, which will wither as the nominating process unfolds, but rather, what the party intends to do about the Iowa caucuses.

Conservatives and Republican elites in the state are divided over who to support for the GOP nomination, but they almost uniformly express concern over the prospect that Ron Paul and his army of activist supporters may capture the state’s 2012 nominating contest — an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. […]

Paul poses an existential threat to the state’s cherished kick-off status, say these Republicans, because he has little chance to win the GOP nomination and would offer the best evidence yet that the caucuses reward candidates who are unrepresentative of the broader party.

“It would make the caucuses mostly irrelevant if not entirely irrelevant,” said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa Republican who helped Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43 here.

This is an entirely legitimate concern. Iowa, for reasons I’ve never been fully comfortable with, believes it is blessed by God to have first-in-the-nation status, and fiercely treasures this role. Candidates, or even possible candidates, have been reluctant to even suggest changes to the existing structure.

But a Paul victory would set a precedent that could change how Republicans perceive the caucuses themselves. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to a de jure change, but rather a de facto change — GOP presidential contenders would simply conclude, “Let’s focus our attention on New Hampshire on South Carolina, because those Iowans appear to be nuts.”

A party county chair in Iowa told Politico, “My biggest fear is that the Republican Party nationally and a lot of states that want to be number one [in the nominating process] will simply point to his winning and say, ‘Iowa’s irrelevant.’”

And that seems pretty likely.

What’s more, if Paul wins in Iowa two weeks from today, it arguably raises his visibility and bolsters his campaign in such a way that would encourage him to run as an independent after one of his rivals wins the Republican nomination. Paul has already suggested he may run against the GOP nominee in the general election, and Iowa’s Republican caucuses may very well, ironically, boost a candidate who won’t even stick with his party.

To be sure, this is speculative, and arguably premature. With 14 days to go, the political winds in Iowa are blowing in a variety of directions and no one can say with confidence exactly who’ll win in Iowa when the dust settles. Still, it’s a dynamic worth watching, especially as the party establishment starts to panic.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.