05/14/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

The Mitt Romney-Ron Paul Connection Grows Ever More Curious

Look out, America. There may be a libertarian named "Paul" prowling around the White House next January after all.

No, not Ron Paul, the veteran Texas legislator and Republican presidential candidate who's still in the GOP primary race, but his son, Rand, the recently-elected senator from Kentucky.

How could such a seemingly unlikely development transpire?

Well, it starts with a not-so-subtle push by Ron Paul to try to force GOP front-runner Mitt Romney to cut a deal with him to avoid a long drawn-out and nasty delegate battle at the GOP convention in Tampa on August 29.

Paul, unbeknownst to many, is in a position to win over large numbers of uncommitted delegates from earlier caucus fights, even though he initially lost those fights to Romney or to other candidates when the original ballots were cast.

One of the best examples is Nevada, where Romney bested Paul 2-1 but Paul stands poised to win nearly all of the state's 28 delegates.

How can that be? A lot of these early contests were just preliminary battles to determine the relative strengths of the candidates, but the actual apportioning of the state's delegates is a multi-phase process that can require subsequent voting at local and state party conventions over a period of many months.

In the course of this process, grassroots politics -- at which Paul's young and highly committed forces excel -- can shape how delegates actually align themselves with the candidates, and in the case of Nevada, it looks like nearly all will be backing Paul in Tampa.

Some observers speculate that Paul even has an outside chance of winning over sufficient numbers of caucus delegates from other states, as well as delegates currently pledged to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to give the 77-year-old curmudgeon a shot at wresting the nomination away from Romney -- or forcing something resembling a brokered convention.

But even without such a long-shot scenario, Paul is gaining sufficient strength in the party to force Romney to deal, and that's where things might well get interesting.

Evidence of an emerging quid pro quo between Romney and Paul was evident months ago when both Santorum and Gingrich began noting that their two GOP rivals never seemed to criticize each other in the debates or on the campaign trail.

Paul increasingly trained his fire on Santorum and Gingrich as candidates of the Big Government mainstream who could not be trusted to defend free markets but never made the same criticism of Romney, even refusing to join in the anti-Romney chorus attacking the former Massachusetts governor's health care plan as a predecessor to Obamacare.

Likewise, while Santorum, an avid neo-conservative, frequently attacked Paul's neo-isolationist foreign policy views, Romney, who shares Santorum's views remained silent.

Initially, it simply appeared that the two were ignoring each other, Romney, perhaps, because he never took Paul's candidacy seriously, and was committed to appearing to be above the fray of the other GOP candidates arrayed against him.

But as more and more of these candidates dropped out, it became clear to the remaining candidates that something more was afoot.

A number of conservative analysts have noted that Paul's unprecedented visibility and strength in 2012 is suggestive of a "rebirth" of libertarianism that is also evident in the emergence of libertarian-leaning Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) as a top House GOP leader and the general rise of the libertarian-oriented Tea Party as a national political force.

The elder Paul, according to this reasoning, is nearing the end of his career, and is intent on capitalizing on his political success and preserving his legacy. One way to do that? Promote his son Rand as his successor, of course, but even more ambitiously, try to lever his political influence over the GOP race to try to compel Romney to tap Rand for the VP slot.

There are other, more modest, possibilities of course. Ron Paul might play a role in drafting the GOP platform and for the first time ever, be granted a spot to address the GOP convention during prime time, guaranteeing him a huge national audience.

Sound preposterous? Don't underestimate Ron Paul. While the mainstream media routinely denies him credibility -- even to the point of failing to report the results of head-to-head polls with President Obama, in which he typically runs competitively -- Paul's views, especially on foreign policy, resonate with large segments of the U.S. electorate in both parties.

Still, on its face, a Rand selection as VP wouldn't seem to help Romney much. It might galvanize the GOP party base at a time when the "enthusiasm gap," which earlier favored the Republicans, has swung sharply in Obama's favor. However, it wouldn't help Romney woo the undecided independent-minded suburbanites who are likely to break late or help the ticket gain an advantage in any of the critical battleground states.

And would Rand even accept the VP slot? Officially, he has said that he would be "honored" to be considered, and there's been evidence of late that he is moving to tone down some of his past opposition to overseas intervention, especially in the Middle East, in ways that seem calculated to narrow the distance between himself and Romney.

More broadly, since his election 18 months ago, he's been doing his best to put a measure of distance between himself and his father, if only try to carve out a more distinct political identity of his own.

Still, Rand clearly owes his political rise -- and his Senate victory -- to his father's long -- and growing -- political reach. Whether that reach could now -- against all odds -- catapult him to the vice presidency is likely to be one of the more compelling dramas to unfold as the GOP nominating race slowly draws to a close.