In addition to Paul's policy of nonaggression against Romney, there are the instances of operational collusion between the two camps. Throughout the primaries, they have coordinated such details as the timing of their election-night speeches, the Washington Post reported -- a routine courtesy, perhaps, but one not always extended to Romney by the other campaigns.
Other instances have been more consequential. When Romney decided he didn't want to participate in a pre-Super Tuesday debate scheduled for March 1, his camp reached agreement with Paul's behind the scenes that both candidates would decline the invitation, as Benton has acknowledged. The debate was quickly canceled for lack of participation.
Had Paul not backed Romney up on this, the debate might well have still been held, either showcasing Romney's avoidance or pressuring him into recommitting. And while Romney had an obvious interest in killing the debate, to deny his unpredictable rivals national screen time and an opportunity to score points on him, Paul did not. Paul's ostensible mission, short of winning the nomination, is to spread the gospel of liberty and convert Americans to his philosophy. The opportunity to reach a national audience through televised debates is practically the reason he's running. In 2008, he had to fight to get into the primary debates. That he would pass up an invitation this year flies in the face of his candidacy's whole rationale.
Another less acknowledged, but possibly more significant, boost to Romney was Paul's decision not to participate in this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul had won the conference's straw poll for three years straight, causing frustration among the organizers, who saw his mass ticket buys and buses of college students as distorting the would-be barometer of activist sentiment. But this year, Paul was the only presidential candidate not to attend and speak at the conference, and he made no attempt to organize for the straw poll. Who won in Paul's absence? Mitt Romney, in a crucially timed lift to his candidacy that helped dampen Santorum's momentum.
Both the candidates have denied that there's any kind of deal. "There's no truth" to the idea, Paul told CNN Tuesday. "No, of course not. No one is going to tell Ron Paul what to say," Romney said in a Fox Business interview the same day. But the evidence is clear that a de facto alliance exists -- and that it chiefly benefits Romney.
The biggest potential benefit to Romney, of course, lies ahead. In 2008, after he dropped out of the race, Paul never endorsed the GOP nominee, John McCain, who had open disdain for him and his followers. Romney clearly hopes to do a better job of courting Paul and his legions of supporters for the general election this time around.
A source familiar with the Paul camp's thinking portrayed the "cahoots" idea as a conspiracy theory seized upon by a desperate Santorum as his candidacy struggles. The source acknowledged that the Paul camp had made a "strategic decision" not to target Romney-leaning voters, a calculation he said was supported by the campaign's internal polling.