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Mr. Matthews sees a twofold effect for Mr. Paul: “His libertarian bent makes him the most principled of the Republican candidates. The large segment of the conservative base shares his rebellion against the GOP’s willingness to become part of Washington’s big-spending establishment. And as the only antiwar Republican candidate, he may provide a safe harbor to conservatives who are increasingly growing dissatisfied with the war.”

Still, even some admirers are skeptics.

“Certainly there is a case to be made for a GOP protest vote in favor of Ron Paul,” said Jameson Campaigne Jr., an Illinois-based director of the American Conservative Union. “But I don’t think small-‘c’ conservative voters dare waste a vote on such a thing — unless the three front-runners in January are all discredited — Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson.”

Mr. Buchanan thinks the Texan is in it for the duration.

“If he stays in the race, he will have a solid, hard-core but small following the whole way through the nomination contest,” the former Nixon and Reagan White House aide said. “He has the money to go the distance because he harbors his resources.”

c Ms. Bellantoni reported from Iowa; Mr. Hallow from Washington.