Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) - Top Iowa Republicans, facing the very real possibility that Ron Paul could win the state caucuses on January 3, are defending their state's first-in-the-nation status against charges of irrelevancy.
Many GOP leaders consider Paul unelectable and his nomination an impossibility. So they're getting ready to dismiss the Iowa results–and that makes Gov. Terry Branstad predictably mad.
In an interview with CNN, the Iowa Republican governor tried to finesse the significance of any Paul victory.
“It's who comes in second and who comes in third as well as who comes in first. And if somebody else does surprisingly well, it could well launch their campaign. It's happened before. So you don't necessarily have to win in Iowa, but you do need to be in the top three to be in contention going forward," Branstad said.
Republicans in the state do say Paul has the best organization of any of the contenders. In fact, one senior Iowa Republican said the congressman has taken a page out of President Barack Obama's playbook by energizing new people to participate - with a special focus on young voters.
Paul, who returns to the state on Wednesday for several days of campaigning, has an appealing message that may sound oddly familiar: Washington needs dramatic change, especially on the economic front. He pledges to cut $1 trillion out of the federal budget during his first year in office.
"I think what it says is that the voters in Iowa are looking for a dramatic change and recognize that the country is clearly going in the wrong direction. Ron Paul has the biggest plan, best plan, or at least the most, uh, comprehensive plan to reduce the federal debt. And that's the number one issue in Iowa. And he has a plan that would reduce federal spending by a trillion dollars in the first year. That's a dramatic, radical, change," Branstad said.
Several Republicans acknowledged that Paul's foreign policy stances–including pushing minimum engagement for the U.S. overseas–has dampened some support for him.