SIOUX CITY, IOWA — The alarms are sounding in Iowa.
Conservatives and Republican elites in the state are divided over who to support for the GOP nomination, but they almost uniformly express concern over the prospect that Ron Paul and his army of activist supporters may capture the state's 2012 nominating contest — an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
In spin rooms, bar rooms and online forums, the what-to-do-about-Paul conversation has become pervasive as polls show him at or near the top here just weeks before the Jan. 3 vote.
Paul poses an existential threat to the state's cherished kick-off status, say these Republicans, because he has little chance to win the GOP nomination and would offer the best evidence yet that the caucuses reward candidates who are unrepresentative of the broader party.
"It would make the caucuses mostly irrelevant if not entirely irrelevant," said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa Republican who helped Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush here. "It would have a very damaging effect because I don't think he could be elected president and both Iowa and national Republicans wouldn't think he represents the will of voters."
What especially worries Iowa Republican regulars is the possibility that Paul could win here on Jan. 3 with the help of Democrats and independents who change their registration to support the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman but then don't support the GOP nominee next November.
"I don't think any candidate perverting the process in that fashion helps (the caucuses) in any way," said Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, adding that he didn't know if that's necessarily how Paul would win.
While there's no evidence of an organized effort, public polling shows that Paul's lead is built in large part with the support of non-Republicans — and few party veterans think such voters would stick with the GOP in November.
"They'll all go back and vote for (President Barack) Obama," predicted Beach.
The most troubling eventuality that Iowa Republicans are bracing for is that Paul wins the caucuses only to lose the nomination and run as a third-party candidate in November — all but ensuring Obama is re-elected.
"If we empower somebody who turns around and elects Obama, then that's a major problem for the caucuses," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
Leading Republicans, looking to put the best possible frame on a Paul victory, are already testing out a message for what they'll say if the 76-year-old Texas congressman is triumphant.
The short version: Ignore him.
"People are going to look at who comes in second and who comes in third," said Gov. Terry Branstad. "If (Mitt) Romney comes in a strong second, it definitely helps him going into New Hampshire and the other states."
The Paul rise comes at a moment when many Iowa GOP elites are already angst-ridden about their beloved quadrennial franchise. The fretting began four years ago when long-shot Mike Huckabee cruised to an easy caucus win, only to lose the nomination to John McCain, who finished fourth in Iowa after ignoring the state for much of 2007.
The concern has only grown in this election cycle. Romney has kept the state at arms-length for much of this year; Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll only to quickly recede to single-digits in state and national polls, raising questions about the future relevance of what is a fundraising bonanza for the state party.
Further, the decline in the number of candidate events here — and the prominent role debates and cable TV have played in this year's election — have sparked difficult questions about whether Iowa's retail-heavy traditions are a thing of the past.
Paul officials note that they've embraced the Iowa way. And even establishment Republicans like Branstad concede that the congressman has done it "the old-fashioned way" and enjoys the best organization of any of the candidates.
"Dr. Paul is hands down the most authentic, principled candidate in the race, and we have run the best, most comprehensive campaign," said Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton. "Iowans will help further cement their national status by choosing Dr. Paul and proving that sincerity, seriousness, consistency and hard grass roots campaigning wins in Iowa, not glitzy, media-anointed, establishment front-runners."
But many Iowa Republicans, convinced that Paul's views are well out of the party mainstream, believe that rewarding such an effort in the short-term would risk the very process itself in elections to come.
"My biggest fear is that the Republican Party nationally and a lot of states that want to be No. 1 (in the nominating process) will simply point to his winning and say, 'Iowa's irrelevant,' " said Andy Cable, GOP co-chair in Hardin County.
A victory by Paul, with his left-of Obama foreign policy views, libertarian outlook on social issues and paper trail of controversial statements, could represent a potentially devastating blow to the tradition of Republicans starting their White House campaigns in Iowa.
"Mortal," said Doug Gross, a leading Republican lawyer and Branstad adviser, when asked how severe the wound of a Paul win would be.
"I think a Paul win would be devastating for the state of Iowa and the caucus process," added Sam Clovis, an influential talk radio host in northwest Iowa who endorsed Rick Santorum on Monday.
Clovis and other Republicans expressed hope that Paul's debate performance last week would wake up traditional activists, who've seen his conservative TV ads and aren't aware of how far the libertarian is from the party base on some core issues.
"What has me concerned is that on Main Street Iowa people are coming up to me and saying, 'What do you think about Dr. Paul?' " said Cable. "These are folks who have to be informed. They have to get past the 30 and 60 second ads. If you ask Iowans if they're for legalizing marijuana or legalizing heroin, they'd say no. But Dr. Paul has said on many occasions that that's okay. But people don't all know that."
POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.