How Much Do Ron and Newt “Matter”?

At WaPo’s The Fix, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argue that the all-but-forgotten Ron Paul is a much bigger player in what happens to Mitt Romney down the road than is Newt Gingrich. They are presumably pushing back against the attention Gingrich is getting thanks to the continuing pressure from Team Santorum on him to get out of the race, along with Newt’s own self-aggrandizing talk about his role at the Convention. And all other things being equal, they’re right:

At some point between now an August, Paul and his people will want something — a speaking slot at the national convention? Consideration of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as a running mate? — from Romney World.

They may not get it. But Paul is in a much stronger bargaining position than Gingrich to extract promises from Romney because he can do far more damage if he isn’t placated. That’s why — though both men have zero chance of being their party’s standard-bearer — Paul matters more than Gingrich.

The problem with this comparison of cases for relevance is that it’s not Mitt Romney who is sucking up to and/or threatening Gingrich, it’s conservatives supporting Santorum, who is focused like a laser beam on surviving into May by winning Pennsylvania. Whatever little support Gingrich has left, it could theoretically make the difference between winning or losing on May 24, and that’s all that matters to them at the moment. I suppose Santorum and company could begin making similar pleas to Paul and the Paulites, but nobody thinks it’s going to happen, or that a plurality of Paul’s vote would go to Santorum if he were to surprise everyone by withdrawing. So Newt is the target, which happens to coincide with his own bottomless desire to project himself as a big figure in party counsels.

Cillizza and Blake are absolutely right that Paul has one card he could play that might make him an extremely important figure: the option of running a third-party campaign, presumably by encouraging his minions to capture the Americans Elect ballot line. You have to figure Romney hasn’t forgotten that dire possibility for a moment, which is one reason he’s been as gentle with Ron up until now as Ron has been with him. But that’s a factor of an entirely different dimension than Santorum’s frantic need for a few extra votes in PA, a game so small that even the radically diminished Newt Gingrich can play a role in it commensurate with his ego.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.