How ironic would it be if a month-long onslaught by conservative media and attack ads run against Newt non-stop by a Mitt Romney supporting SuperPAC resulted in Ron Paul winning the Iowa caucuses?  Paul also is running attack ads, but without the rest of the pile on, they would not have done much damage.

That’s what the latest PPP polling is showing, with Newt down to third at 14%, Romney at 20% and Paul at 23%.  Santorum, Perry and Bachmann each have 10%.

I’d still wait for more polling before concluding that the damage has been so extensive to Newt, but there is no doubt he has been hurt.  Some other good analyses are at National Journal (which says don’t count Newt out yet) and Nate Silver.  (added) Ed Morrissey also questions PPP polling sample. (See also, Debunking PPP in Iowa)

So why would this be ironic?  Not because Paul will win or Newt will not win.

First, it’s ironic that Romney still is not able to push his numbers even to the 25% he won in Iowa in 2008.  So by going all out in Iowa to bring Newt down, Romney may end up proving the weakness of his own case for the nomination.  My guess is that is a price he is willing to pay, but it reminds us once again that this campaign is a search for someone other than Romney, even to the extent that close to a quarter of the Iowa caucus goers are willing to stand up for Ron Paul.

Second, the GOP establishment has so invested itself in Romney’s candidacy that it has increased the likelihood of the one thing that would hand Barack Obama the election, a Ron Paul third party candidacy.

Paul has never completely shut the door, only saying he has no present plans and finds it hard to imagine a scenario in which he runs third party.  I believe Paul is being honest, but I also see a clear scenario in which he runs, captured by the title of this column today by Tim Carney, GOP will take off the gloves if Ron Paul wins Iowa:

The Republican presidential primary has become a bit feisty, but it will get downright ugly if Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses….

But neither his establishment-irritating adherence to principle, nor his hawk-angering foreign policy, will be the focus of the anti-Paul attacks should he carry Iowa. His conservative critics and the mainstream media will imply that he is a racist, a kook, and a conspiracy theorist.

Paul’s indiscretions — such as abiding 9/11 conspiracy theorists and allowing racist material in a newsletter published under his name — will be blown up to paint a scary caricature. His belief in state’s rights and property rights will be distorted into support for Jim Crow and racism.

Many of Paul opponents will take heart in concluding that Paul cannot get more than 25 percent in any state, and so he can be dismissed as a spoiler. But for the enforcers of Republican orthodoxy, a Paul victory in Iowa will be an act of impudence that must be punished.

If Paul is treated as badly or worse than Newt has been treated, expect a backlash and desire to vindicate his name with a third party run,  and expect his supporters, who represent about 10% of the party nationally, to push hard to get even.

I still believe, nothwithstanding everything that has happened, that Newt is the most conservative candidate who is electable, both against Romney and Obama.

The ultimate irony is that in the feeding frenzy spurred on by the GOP establishment desire for a Romney nomination, we may end up with a Ron Paul third party run and an Obama victory.