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Congressman Ron Paul's strong third place showing in Iowa Tuesday is garnering the libertarian firebrand a newfound respect and fear amongst the GOP establishment. Coming in just 3,000 votes shy of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and runner-up Rick Santorum, concern that Paul's supporters won't eventually warm up to the non-Ron Paul nominee or even worse, Paul could stage a third-party presidential bid and split Republican votes, is more palpable than ever.

"Our team has to be very careful in being gracious to Ron Paul and his supporters," a senior GOP operative e-mails Politico's Mike Allen. "Paul running as an independent is a total, albeit unlikely, disaster, but only a little less bad is alienating his supporters with disparaging comments to the point they stay home in November."

Though his views on foreign wars and drug legalization are anathema to the party line, some Republicans would rather tolerate his meandering diatribes than tempt a revolt by either the Texas congressman or his supporters. "Paul agrees with us 85 percent of the time," said the operative, "and his supporters are earnest conservatives and libertarians who have no reason to support Obama in 2012 unless they're stepped on by our team."

That point was driven home by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin on Fox Business last night, putting the idea of alienating Paul supporters in even starker terms. "If we marginalize these supporters who have been touched by Ron Paul and what he believed in over these years, well, then, through a third-party run of Ron Paul's or the Democrats capturing those independents and these libertarians who supported what Ron Paul's been talking about, well, then the GOP is going to lose," she told Neil Cavuto. "And then there will be no light at the end of the tunnel." She reiterated the point during a second interview on Fox News with Bret Baier.

The end-result of appeasing his campaign means a greater airing of views like cutting off foreign aid to Israel and legalizing marijuana, positions that generally make Republicans' heads explode. Party operatives tell the New York Times that Paul's libertarian fingerprint on Republican politics isn't going to go way as long as his campaign performs. "While few Republican strategists expect Mr. Paul to make it to the White House, the results last night showed that at the least he will be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries, and in his party’s politics," reports the newspaper. 

All this third-party hype of coures makes things increasingly uncomfortable for Senator Rand Paul, who is tasked with both stumping for his father while not straying too far from the Republican Party. Of a potential third-party bid, Rand told New Hampshire's WGIR-AM this week "I don't think it's a good idea." According to a scooplet reported by Politico's Ben White, it's possible that Rand could be the ultimate victim of a third-party run by his father. "NYC conservatives associated with the Monday Meeting are planning to start raising money to target Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2016 if his father, Ron Paul, mounts a third-party bid for the presidency and helps re-elect Obama." Revenge tactics! Sounds like a surefire way to burn bridges with the Paul camp. 

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