WASHINGTON -- A prominent Iowa Republican, and a major supporter of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, did not hesitate to answer when asked recently how many of the Hawkeye State's 28 delegates he expects Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to have heading into the national convention in Tampa this August.
"Twenty," he said.
Conversations with numerous Iowa Republicans confirms the same thing: The state party establishment is dreading a Paul rout on June 15 and 16 at the two-day congressional district/state convention in Des Moines.
"Paul is costing the state a lot of credibility," said Bob Haus, a GOP consultant who most recently headed up Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign in the state.
Another Republican operative who works for a statewide official sounded an even more despondent note.
"It does not sound encouraging. The Paul people are in a position to control the delegates, and the result would be chaotic for the Republican Party of Iowa and bring it to a screeching halt, rendering it completely irrelevant to our efforts here," the Republican aide told The Huffington Post. "Nobody would rely on [the state party] for anything."
After the fiasco earlier this year involving the caucus results, Iowans are nervous that if Paul gets a majority of the delegates, it will endanger their first-in-the-nation primary status. On Jan. 3, Romney was reported the winner, only to have the state GOP announce two weeks later that the result was inconclusive, then to reverse again and say that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the victor. The party chairman, Matt Strawn, resigned as a result of the confusion.
So the prospect of a third candidate winning the state is causing ulcer-level heartburn, especially since Paul came in third in the popular vote. But that isn't stopping Paul's supporters -- known among other things as Paulites, Paulinistas and to their most critical detractors, Paulbots -- from moving forward with their plan to try to win more delegates in Iowa and other states than was reflected in the popular vote.
Paul is estimated to have won only one delegate thus far in Iowa by most estimates. But the caucus system is essentially a series of rounds of voting, or "delegates electing delegates electing delegates," as a top Paul campaign official put it (click here for a full run down of how the Iowa process works). And Paul supporters are the most engaged with this process.
Jesse Benton, the national chairman for Paul's campaign, told HuffPost that Iowa is not the only place they think they can win a large swath of delegates.
"Iowa is still very much in play, and there is a lot of work to do," Benton said. "However, we are confident of our strength and are working hard. We have similar prospects in seven other states."
Benton told HuffPost last November that the Paul campaign would be competing hard for delegates in Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, Washington and Nevada.
Sure enough, Paul has already won 20 out of the 24 delegates allocated in Minnesota, by winning a majority of the congressional district contests. There are another 13 at-large delegates up for grabs on May 19 at the state convention.
In Maine, Paul is expected to be in the running for at least eight of the state's 24 delegates heading into this weekend's district caucuses and state convention.
In Washington, delegates will be allotted at the state convention at the end of May. And in Nevada, Paul supporters say they hope to turn out about 65 percent of the attendees to the state convention this Saturday and Sunday, as they compete for 25 of the state's 28 delegates. Like in most states, three delegate slots are automatic and go to Nevada's GOP chairman, their national committee man and their national committee woman.
It's not just Iowa Republicans or other state parties that are starting to worry. The national Republican Party is perking up and starting to take notice. The Republican National Committee's chief counsel, John R. Phillippe Jr., on Wednesday sent a letter to the Nevada GOP chairman, Michael McDonald, essentially warning him that the state party should prevent Paul supporters from taking over this weekend's state convention.
"Each candidate is entitled to have delegates supporting him elected to the delegate slots that he earned in the Presidential Preference Poll," Phillippe wrote, referring to the results of the Feb. 4 caucus, which Romney won with 50 percent of the popular vote.
Jon Ralston, the chief political writer for the Las Vegas Sun, wrote late Wednesday that the RNC appears to fear Paul supporters "taking Mitt Romney slots and then not abiding by GOP rules to vote for the presumptive nominee on the first ballot in Tampa."
Phillippe's letter threatens that the RNC may not seat the entire Nevada delegation at the convention in Tampa if it has reason to believe that the Paul supporters have captured more delegate slots than the rules allow.
Benton, in an email exchange with HuffPost, wouldn't name the last two states where the campaign has prospects and is competing hard for delegates. But there has been plenty of attention around the success of Paul's supporters in Louisiana and Massachusetts over the past few days. In Louisiana, Paulites "dominated" the congressional district caucuses this past Saturday, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Paul's supporters carried four of the state's congressional districts, and are guaranteed at least 17 of 46 delegates in the Bayou State, with the potential to pick up more at the state convention on June 2.
The other state that Benton likely has his eye on is Colorado, where the Denver Post reported in mid-April that Paul supporters and Santorum backers combined forces to win a "stunning upset" at the state convention, guaranteeing that about half of the state's 33 delegates will be for Paul in August.
And there are other states where Paul can pick up delegates, or where he has reportedly already picked off a few: Alaska, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Romney's home state of Massachusetts is a special case. Because Romney won the popular vote in the state's March 6 primary, all 38 delegates are bound by party rules to support him on the first ballot at the national convention. But in the congressional district conventions this past weekend, Paul supporters captured 16 delegate spots out of 27 that were elected (another 11 at-large delegates are elected at the state committee meeting on June 15).
If the RNC is concerned about Paul supporters from Nevada defying the rules on the first ballot in Tampa, that worry could extend to the Massachusetts delegates.
Despite the drama, it's still not clear what immediate tangible benefit these delegates will yield for Paul and his devoted followers. Romney still appears to be set to reach 1,144 delegates, the number he needs to clinch the nomination.
But at the very least, Paul's delegate total and the willingness of his supporters to vote for him on the floor in Tampa is certain to draw attention to his cause and his message of limited government. It seems somewhat unlikely that Paul would forego the chance to see his supporters give the GOP establishment fits on the convention floor, under a nationally televised microscope, simply to gain a better speaking slot at the four-day event.
So he may be simply building a movement with a view toward giving his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a head start for the 2016 race.
And some Republicans said he has already succeeded in pushing the Republican Party so far to the right on fiscal and budgetary matters that it has paid tangible dividends at the legislative level.
"There are a lot of establishment Republicans who need to thank Ron Paul for injecting a certain amount of courage to do what people always said needed to be done but where they also said, 'How do we do that?'" Iowa state Rep. Erik Helland said.
Helland said that in 2011, the legislature "deappropriated" $500 million over three years from programs such as state-mandated pre-school, government employee benefits and other programs that usually cause an outcry. Helland, who is the majority whip, said that on the Monday after they announced the spending cuts, he got back to Des Moines and "braced" himself for news of outrage from other state representatives who had spent the weekend meeting with constituents.
"They came back and said, 'We talked to our voters, they want to cut more,'" Helland said. "It was paradigm shifting. The voters started actually saying, 'cut.'"
Helland said he gives credit to Paul, who has spent a lot of time in Iowa over the past several years, for changing the political culture.
"Paul staked out such an aggressive dialogue on cutting government that some of the steps we've taken in the legislature and at the federal level are possible because Ron Paul talked about it to the extent that it became politically palatable," Helland said.
"Ron Paul is the most successful presidential candidate in the last couple decades, even though he hasn't won the election," he continued. "He has shaped the dialogue."
Below, more on the path of Paul's campaign: