November 2010: “You can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative.” Today: “What I would like to see is a Republican Party that embraces a lot of these libertarian ideas.” Those two statements aren’t directly contradictory — like DeMint, plenty of Republicans want more libertarianism on fiscal, but not social or foreign, policy — but it’s amazing to hear a guy known for being a strong conservative across the board talking up a candidate who’s often dismissed as catering to doves and libertines. Is this genuine respect or simple strategic caution? Dan Foster of NRO makes the case for the former:

Look, I don’t think Paul has a serious chance to win the nomination, but to my surprise he has run a quite serious campaign. Watching his speech last night confirmed this. Paul knows he is a million-to-one shot to win, but he also knows that if it comes down to just him and Romney, with the vote floor he’s established early, that he could run as high or higher in a lot of states, and come to the convention with a non-trivial number of delegates and an agenda. His holding fire on, and even defending, Romney from Perry/Gingrich attacks confirms the strategic sophistication of his campaign. Paul’s defense of free enterprise is certainly a principled one. But it also supports his interest in seeing the field winnowed down. It might also reflect a desire not to do damage to the presumptive party nominee — whom Paul has suggested he prefers to Obama — if he can build a strong position without doing so. Either way, Paul has shown a level of rationality and maturity that contradicts the caricatures.

Yeah, I agree that Paul has won respect even among his critics in the GOP establishment for running an effective campaign. How could he not have? Most of the campaigns this year are so astoundingly incompetent that they can’t even manage to get on the ballot in every state. Like Romney, he’s earned points simply for metaphorically showing up to his job interview in a suit. But there is, of course, a strategic consideration here: DeMint’s obviously and correctly worried about the GOP losing votes from Paul’s fans in November if they feel alienated. Some of those votes are lost regardless because, for some, Paul is The Only Man Who Can Save America. But some simply prefer him on the merits to the rest of the field and others are voting for him as a protest vote. A chunk of those can be won back with an “Anybody But Obama” argument, but the more their candidate is dismissed as a crank now, the harder it’ll be. (A WaPo poll last month found Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent head to head, but if Paul is added to the equation as a third-party candidate, Obama wins by 10 points.) DeMint’s taking the perfectly mainstream line that libertarians have lots of good ideas about spending and deserve to be heard in hopes that that’ll be enough.

Will it, though? I’ve never had the sense that cutting spending was the animating principle behind the Paul phenomenon even though it’s at the core of his platform. He might consider it the animating principle, but whenever I read or watch interviews with his most devoted supporters, foreign policy seems to come up much more often. (For all the lip service paid to drug legalization as being key to his youth appeal, I don’t see that come up especially often either.) I don’t know how you square that circle, even in a more war-weary party. It’s one thing to support a more modest international presence, it’s another to question the Bin Laden raid that pretty much everyone in America not named “Ron Paul” thinks was fantastic. If I’m right that foreign policy is key for most Paul fans, there’s really not much that can be done to keep them happy in the party. I keep thinking Rand Paul is going to build the bridge here simply because he’s managed to keep a foot in the mainstream and a foot in the Paul universe in a way that his dad never has, but we’ll see. If anyone in the family ends up getting a big role at the convention to win over Paul voters, I’d bet it’s Rand rather than Ron.

Exit question: Is Paul really doing dramatically better than expected at the polls this year, as most of this morning’s pundit CW claims? He’s improved on his 2008 numbers dramatically, but he’s running against a weaker field with a much better organization in a political climate (ever longer wars and mind-boggling debt) that’s vastly more favorable to him. Finishing a distant second in New Hampshire is great, but it was a distant second to a guy whom roughly 70 percent of the party dislikes for being a soulless RINO. If we do end up with a two-man Romney/Paul race, Mitt will win it likely without needing to run a single negative ad against him. If you can’t make the flip-flopping architect of RomneyCare sweat, how much heat do you have? Click the second image to watch.