While others woo Florida, Ron Paul’s strategy is to rack up delegates in February

When asked in front of a national audience this week to defend his ability to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Ron Paul responded by emphasizing the real contest: the race for delegates.

"The delegates [are] what counts," Paul said at the NBC presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., after noting that the Iowa caucuses (in which Paul placed third) did not award a single delegate to a candidate. The caucuses are just the starting point for a long delegate awarding process in that state.

Paul didn't win any of the first three nominating contests, and he plans to largely ignore Florida's winner-take-all primary on Tuesday in favor of focusing on states that hold caucuses, like Nevada, Maine and Minnesota. By picking up delegates in nearly every state, Paul and his supporters could potentially wreak havoc at the Republican nominating convention this August.

"We're going to be in until it's mathematically impossible for us to win," Gary Howard, a spokesman for Paul, told Yahoo News in the spin room after a debate last week in Charleston, S.C. "It's going to be a long time."

The magic number necessary for a candidate to win the nomination is 1,144 delegates--a majority of the 2,286 delegates who will be voting at the convention, which will be held from Aug. 27 to Aug. 30 in Tampa, Fla.

Paul's team says they're running to win, not to influence the platform or the selection of the party's vice presidential nominee at the convention.

"Absolutely," we will be at the convention, campaign manager Jesse Benton told Yahoo News. "We have a comprehensive plan to win 1,144 delegates. We're going to scrap all the way."

Benton listed Minnesota, Maine, Nevada, Louisiana, North Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and Washington as states where Paul could place first or second, when pressed during an interview last week.

But the candidate himself told Yahoo News last year that he believes his supporters could "influence the platform."

"If our momentum continues, I think our delegates will not be insignificant," Paul said in September.

Elections expert Rob Richie, the executive director of Fairvote.org, said in an interview with Yahoo News that he could envision scenarios in which no candidate has a majority of delegates heading into the convention.

"I think Florida is key," Richie later clarified in an email. "If Romney wins it, as I see as quite possible, I suspect he'll go on a tear through the February contests. If Gingrich wins it ... we'll have to see."

"It's a real concern," Jack Burkman, a Republican consultant unaffiliated in the 2012 race, told Yahoo News.

The candidate with the most delegates at the Tampa convention may "have to make a deal" with Paul, Burkman said.

Paul's "having the best moment of his life right now," he added.

Although most states are following Republican National Committee rules and allocating delegates proportionally per candidate based on election results, Florida is flouting those rules--not only by holding an early primary inside the calendar window reserved for four early-voting states, but also by choosing a winner-take-all system.

Under Florida's current plan, 50 delegates will be awarded to the winner of the Jan. 31 primary. That's a stunning amount, especially when compared to the number of delegates awarded thus far.

According to FairVote (which is not calculating "committed" delegates who have pledged support, but delegates based on the voting outcomes) no candidates can yet lay claim to Iowa's delegates because the caucuses were nonbinding. Romney won 7 delegates in New Hampshire where Paul won 3 delegates and Jon Huntsman won 2 delegates (although Huntsman dropped out and his delegates will move elsewhere), and Gingrich has locked up 23 of 25 of South Carolina's delegates because the state is under a winner-take-all system (two counties remain outstanding).

Paul has demonstrated strong and loyal support from voters under 30, according to exit polls, and independents in the first three nominating contests. Many believe Paul will continue to receive support from those groups for as long as he remains in the race.

Paul is routinely asked if he would consider waging a third-party bid this year. He typically replies to this by saying: "I have no intention" of going third-party. This response--which he issued again during Monday night's debate--continues to elicit questions about his future plans.

But experts and observers agree that Paul has a lot to gain by remaining in the race and keeping his delegates. (Others say not to count Paul out of a third party bid until he officially decides against it.)

Yet even when delegates are awarded and even if they are directed by their candidates to support a nominee, that also doesn't mean they will listen.

Richie said it's always possible for a potential fight to break out at the convention if many of the delegates are uncomfortable supporting the presumed nominee—perhaps if significantly damaging news were to break about the frontrunner before the convention vote.

"Delegates are not as bound as people think," Richie said. If delegates representing candidates other than the presumed frontrunner outnumber the presumed nominee's supporters, chaos could ensue on the convention floor.

"But we have to go a long way for that to be a reality," Richie said.

Chris Moody contributed reporting.

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