Ron Paul's biggest supporters have made their intentions clear: Changing the Republican Party from within surpasses any devotion they may have for the Libertarian Party and its presidential candidate, Gary Johnson.
Still, Johnson and the Libertarian Party are hoping to draw support from Paul's devotees, assuming the Texas congressman fails to snag the GOP nod from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Tapping into a reservoir of Paul's passionate, famously dedicated grassroots army is no easy feat. For one, pro-Paul super PAC Endorse Liberty said the former New Mexico governor isn't on its agenda. Paul was the Libertarian candidate in 1988.
Endorse Liberty isn't going to be getting behind any Libertarian candidates, and we don't plan to, said Jeffrey Harmon, one of the co-founders of the pro-Paul super PAC, which isn't allowed by law to coordinate with the candidate, but invests in ads in his favor. We're Republicans and we're trying to take back the Republican Party. ... I have a lot of libertarian ideals, but this is a two-party system -- why try to leave a system that's built to hold out any other party?
Both Paul and Johnson have very similar fiscally conservative and socially live-and-let-live ideals. They both want smaller government, lower taxes, looser business regulations, and to abolish the Federal Reserve, as well as allow gay unions and legalize marijuana. There are some small differences; both were against going into Iraq and Afghanistan, but Johnson supports some military interventions for humanitarian reasons and Paul doesn't. Ron Paul is against abortions, while Johnson supports abortion rights.
Both are widely seen as fringe candidates in an election that has boiled down to Romney versus President Barack Obama. Both recognize that their chances of making it to the White House in 2012 are extremely slim.
The biggest difference between the two is not policy, but the path they've chosen. The presence of both of them in the presidential race -- particularly Paul -- indicates how libertarians may have more influence in the Republican Party's platform this year at the national convention than they ever have before.
As Johnson outlined his beliefs and values at the Libertarian Party's Las Vegas convention on Saturday, Paul's forces went head-to-head with Romney and surprisingly snagged the majority of delegates in Maine and Nevada.
Paul and his supporters have proven to be masters of grassroots organizing in the convoluted nominating process and could create a major embarrassment to Romney come the national convention in Tampa in August.
For one, Maine: On Sunday, passionate Paul supporters flocked to the state's convention and elected 21 of the 24 delegate spots reserved for Maine at the August convention, according to the Associated Press. In Nevada, the Paulites elected 22 delegates for their candidate, compared to three for Romney. Similar sweeps quietly occurred in Iowa, Minnesota and Washington in the past few weeks.
Even Paul's biggest supporters recognize he is unlikely to take away the title Romney has been eyeing for so long, but their plans are much bigger than just the nomination. If they have a loud enough presence at the convention, Paulites hope to influence the party's platform on many issues.
The difference between a Tea Party Republican, a Sarah Palin Republican and a Ron Paul Republican is two years, Harmon said. It's a movement. In the next decade we'll start to see some real fruits with what we're doing.
For Johnson, running for president is also more about voice than winning. Other than a viral joke last September in which he said his next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration, he hadn't come close to receiving the little attention Paul got.
When [Johnson] was running in the Republican Party, he was largely excluded from the debates, his campaign spokesman Joe Hunter said. It was a crowded field ... Frankly, the [third-party] strategy is proving to be correct. He's got a much more effective microphone than he did in the Republican field.
Another great microphone? The support of enthusiastic, strategizing Paulites. Libertarian Party Executive Director Carla Howell said she expects the vast majority of Ron Paul supporters to vote for Johnson if Paul doesn't make the ticket come November. Gov. Johnson and much of the Libertarian party wish Dr. Paul every success in his pursuit of the GOP nomination. We welcome his supporters with open arms, she said.
But that doesn't mean Paul himself will endorse the candidate (although Howell said she'd love that) nor that Paul's loyal fans will turn into Johnsonites once the national convention concludes and Paul doesn't make the ticket.
Howell said she regularly talks to Paul campaign staff but there has been no talk about an endorsement (Paul dodged a question on Bloomberg TV last week about whether or not he would endorse Romney, saying it depends on how the platform ends up), while Hunter said there has been no coordination between the two campaigns.
Harmon said he personally had no idea who he would vote for in November assuming Paul was not on the ticket, but could see himself picking Johnson as a protest vote.
I'd rather throw my vote away than throw my country away, said Harmon, who clarified he was speaking on behalf of himself and not Endorse Liberty.
Still, that doesn't necessarily mean there should be hard feelings between the two candidates. In fact, just the opposite. Even if Johnson is barely riding the coattails of Paul's campaign, two libertarian candidates in an election just shows how much the movement is creeping its way into mainstream Republican politics.
Ron Paul has clearly chosen to stay with the GOP, so we're not working directly together, but we recognize that we are all working together for the broader cause of liberty, Howell said.
A lot of Paulites agree.
Many people, including myself, were in awe to see, not just one, but TWO Libertarians running for president this year in the Republican Party, wrote Tyler Mittan, who has a blog called The Angry Libertarian. This is the Libertarian's chance to really get their message across.
The Ron Paul campaign did not respond for comment by the time this article was published.