Ron Paul’s campaign (and his fans) had hoped to make the Republican presidential nomination race a Romney vs. Paul one by now. In this wished-for scenario, Paul could use his Tea Party, small government, Christian conservative bonafides to be a legitimate contender on the delegate-collection path toward Tampa.

Alas, the former joke candidate Rick Santorum not only refuses to go away, he’s been winning states, is still running pretty strong despite his losses to Romney in Michigan and Arizona this week, and will likely rack up some more victories on Super Tuesday.

Paul and Santorum couldn’t be farther apart in the same political party. Paul wants to bring home the troops and cease all non-defensive wars; Santorum is itching for war with Iran. Paul wants to end the federal drug war; Santorum is for toughening both the domestic and international drug wars. The Paul of today doesn’t want the government to have anything in particular to say or do with one’s personal religious beliefs or rituals, including marriage, while Rick Santorum is made sick to even hear that there should be a strict separation of church and state.

Paul has been consistently tough on government spending, while Santorum has not, with the Club for Growth (a GOP pressure group advocating low taxing and spending) concluding that, “On spending, Santorum has a mixed record and showed clear signs of varying his votes based on the election calendar bailout…. His record is plagued by the big-spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001-2006. Some of those high profile votes include his support for No Child Left Behind in 2001….the massive new Medicare drug entitlement in 2003 that now costs taxpayers over $60 billion a year and has almost $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities [and] the 2005 highway bill that included thousands of wasteful earmarks, including the Bridge to Nowhere.”

Explaining the other differences, Paul thinks government’s purpose should be limited pretty much to protecting life and property from force and fraud, and that even most of that should be left to the states. Santorum’s more totalist vision of government’s role in shaping virtue and the social order makes him actively and vocally hostile to the very idea of libertarian governance, and to the notion that we should be free if we wish to choose our own purposes and even to just accumulate property and “stuff,” of which Santorum is contemptuous.

Santorum may be, as Politico wrote, now the “the race’s unambiguous conservative alternative,” but that’s by a particularly ugly and narrow vision of conservatism. As that same Politico piece notes, Santorum "did himself no favors with loyal GOP activists by launching a robocall attempting to lure Democrats to play in the Republican primary” in Michigan—his position is assailable, heartwarming appeals to his mom and daughter notwithstanding. 

Paul fan and best-selling author Charles Goyette offers some good reasons that the standard GOP conservative should be able to see the value for his party in Paul:

Establishment Republicans are a breed unto themselves. If you go to their long-term planning meetings, if you listen to them talk about their Party’s future…It’s all about broadening the base, getting more young people involved, becoming relevant, how to capture enthusiasm, more young people, using the internet, reaching out to young people, figuring out how to fundraise in the digital age, getting more young people.

Now, along comes Ron Paul, who offers them exactly what they want: young people, enthusiasm, an unbeatable social media campaign, devoted volunteers, better demographics, new fundraising success, a campaign worthy of the digital age, relevance, money, excitement, and (did I mention?) young people.

It’s exactly what they have wished for. Exactly what they need. And they turn their back on it.

Indeed they have, for the most part. As Ron Paul has tried to carve himself a usable space among the GOP primary electorate as the real conservative who should be anointed as frontrunner Romney’s main insurgent foe, Paul and his campaign have also not wanted you to forget their oppostiion to Santorum, running ads slamming the ex-senator as a bogus fiscal conservative and a mere “corporate lobbyist…with a record of betrayal” on spending, right to work, and “fighting special interests.” (Despite the endless repetition of groundless accusations of a “Paul/Romney alliance,” Paul’s done more than one TV ad attacking Romney as well.)

If the two politicians are so opposed, and they are, why would Paul’s campaign imagine they could pick up voters who might otherwise lean Santorum? As becomes clear if you spend any time talking to undecided Republican voters on the campaign trail, or even asking decideds to explain why they favor the candidate they do, many voters don’t approach their political choices as rationalistically as a libertarian might guess, or want. There isn’t always policy logic behind a voter’s choices. Often it’s merely an attitude, a stance, or even an alternative that voters are looking for, and Paul, a Protestant and traditionalist, might have reasonably thought that some members of the classic “religious right” could see some merit in him. Paul certainly thought that those who rallied under the Tea Party banner of opposition to government overreach, overtaxing, and overspending should see him and his deliberately lean vision of government, as well as his trillion-dollar one year spending cut plan, as a reasonable option.

The duel between Paul and Santorum, then, looks like it’s one for the soul of the party's future, if it is to have a future at all beyond dull centrism. Jack Hunter, who works with the Paul campaign and co-wrote Rand Paul’s book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, argues that even diehard social cons need to realize their only hope for even small-scale success is via federalism, on the state level; that America is too diverse and pluralistic now for them to be able to impose their values via the federal government.

It has to be especially vexing to Paul’s people that Santorum has gotten as far as he has in a totally shoestring insurgent campaign, apparently winning hearts and minds with the sheer power of his message, such as it is. Now, while Paul’s electoral position isn’t nearly as encouraging as I hoped it might be in the wake of his strong second in New Hampshire (and apparently he’s down to just one national reporter, from NBC, regularly on the Paul beat), Paul does continue to rack up delegates, and no one yet knows how the delegates in unbound caucus states will end up falling out. There is reason to believe Paul will have more delegates than a straight look at his caucus straw poll vote percentages would indicate in states from Iowa to Maine to Colorado.

As long as no one racks up the clear-victory majority of 1,144 delegates needed to win early, this will continue to be a live campaign (and probably continue to be the very sloppy one it has been, with often ambiguous results) in which all living candidates can thrive, and Paul still shows every sign of being able and willing to fight out until the end. This has fortunately for Paul so far been a campaign where momentum is meaningless, and tomorrow’s results are often weird and seemingly unrelated to last week’s results or polls. Southern California congressional candidate and Paul fan Christopher David has laid out a longshot, but possible, scenario for Paul victory in the case of a (still possible) brokered convention.

Quin Hillyer at American Spectator presents a realistic-sounding scenario of Santorum and Romney fighting it out until the end, each with many victories and many defeats, and makes the telling—and encouraging to Paul fans—observation that in this process, GOP voters seen “very willing to change their minds about candidates as the process wears on.”

It’s true the Tea Party has forsaken Paul, with him winning only 6 percent of that self-identified vote in Arizona, and only 7 in Michigan—a state where Paul’s fans showed a willingness to come rally for him in the multiple thousands that was not reflected in vote totals, if one assumed they were representative of their brethren. (Given Paul’s willingness to contemplate the collapsed and apocalyptic economy we might be heading for because of government mismanagement of the economy and money, it’s only fitting that he did win Detroit, a city that is almost already living out his nightmare vision.)

With Romney as the GOP nominee, libertarians could take comfort in the excuses of his momentum, it’s his turn, he’s been presented in the media as the anointed, and all that. With the over a million votes cast so far for Santorum, it’s hard to avoid the dreadful thought that those people really might want Rick Santorum to be president, with all the sanctimony, warmongering, and religious culture wars that would imply. It’s a hard fact for a libertarian, particularly one who in the age of Paul saw the Republican Party as a possible vehicle for state-shrinking, to face up to. But it’s there.

But the race isn’t over yet, and nearly half a million—about 10 percent of the total votes cast—have gone to the supposedly unelectable and crazy libertarian choice, and he’s pretty much always winning with the under-30s, which likely says something about the GOP’s future that party members best mind. His fans are still fighting hard for him in Washington State, the next big hope in Paul-world for an actual clear victory. I’ve seen enough of Paul’s ability to build seemingly crazy and wide coalitions around his prescience, his love of peace, and his willingness to leave us alone to give up on that coalition’s ability to shape America’s future yet. As Julie Ershadi pointed out at American Conservative this week, lots of Paul partisans don’t have any other choice when it comes to the Republican Party. And Paul continues to pretty reliably double his vote totals from 2008 in every state.

Even if Santorum ends up a clear number two—or even number one—in 2012’s GOP field, the forces of demographics, cultural liberalism, and government’s self-crushing overreach still means Paulism is apt to have a richer future than Santorumism. A recent Rasmussen poll still has Paul beating Obama in a one-on-one. The whims of GOP primary voters are temporary and seem of the moment. (For all we know, Gingrich could have an inexplicable comeback.) But monetary and military overreach, crushing debt, and a social furor based on government’s hand in every cultural controversy are all problems that still must be dealt with, and Paul’s ideas are still the best means to do so.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and the forthcoming Ron Paul’s Revolution (Broadside).