Nevada, a caucus state with a big libertarian streak, is tailor-made for Ron Paul to do well -- a fact that only exacerbates a disappointing apparent third-place finish Saturday.
The Paul campaign's strategy has been to pick up delegates in caucus states as opposed to trying to win primary states. His organization is strong, he has an army of committed young fans, and his campaign has even been running "mock-auses" to prep for the real thing in states like Minnesota.
This isn't a strategy for victory, but it's a path to relevance: To winning a large block of delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and then perhaps serving as kingmaker as Mitt Romney and other rivals divide the Republican vote. That scenario now seems to be dissolving: Romney lacks a strong rival; and Paul isn't doing as well in the caucuses as his supporters had hoped.
With 89% of the vote counted in Nevada Sunday, Paul was in third place with less than 19%, and trailing Newt Gingrich -- who had barely any organization in the state -- into a distant second. Paul appears locked into a position far closer than his 2008 finish -- 14% -- than to Romney, who held more than 49% of the vote Sunday.
Paul's relatively weak finish comes despite the fact that Nevada seemed like a natural fit, a Wild West state of libertarians -- including brothel owners and their employees -- receptive to the Paul message. But if the Paul camp's caucus strategy didn't work there, it calls into question the whole idea that picking up delegates drop by drop is an effective tactic.
Speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer earlier in the evening, Paul said that Nevada "is a libertarian state and a friendly state. We've had a good reception there."
But not good enough. The Paul and Romney campaigns were the only ones to have a legitimate ground game in Nevada. The fact that Paul didn't easily outstrip Gingrich, who lacked Paul's months of preparation, doesn't bode well for his long-term strategy.
Asked about that issue earlier in the night, Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton told BuzzFeed to "Wait until the end of the night before you decide whether we've blown [Gingrich] out or not."
But elsewhere in Paul-land, the need to actually win a state is becoming unavoidable.
"I think he needs a breakthrough. He needs a victory," the candidate's son, Senator Rand Paul, told The Atlantic.
That certainly doesn't mean that Paul will drop out. He told Blitzer earlier: "We’re doing so well there’s no reason to even think about that."