As I said on Monday: “Things often move quickly in primary contests.” Even so, and even though I suggested Newt Gingrich’s support had already peaked, I was surprised just how quickly the Gingrich bandwagon fell apart. Already his chances are being written off, and there is a new Republican frontrunner in Iowa — Texas congressman Ron Paul.

So far this repeats the remarkably consistent pattern of the last eight months. Mitt Romney — who is almost certainly going to end up as the nominee, but is disliked by most of the Republican base — maintains a consistent 20% to 25% level of support, and successive challengers rise to garner the anti-Romney following, only to crash and burn and be replaced by the next challenger in line. First Donald Trump, then Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich and now Paul.

Also in line with the pattern, Paul is now getting some more critical media attention, and he’s not handling it well. On Wednesday he walked out of a CNN interview after being repeatedly asked about racist statements in newsletters that he published in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Paul has disavowed what was in the newsletters and maintains that he did not write the articles concerned. (That claim is generally regarded as plausible; the likely author is said to be Lew Rockwell, founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.) But of course, as he concedes, he is responsible for what went out under his name, and much of it was pretty nasty.

It’s been suggested that Paul and his allies were not themselves racists but were cynically using racially-charged rhetoric to appeal to disaffected right-wingers. This was the strategy espoused by libertarian guru Murray Rothbard, then a key Paul backer, at the 1988 election and after. As Michael Brendan Dougherty puts it, they thought “that libertarians ought to engage in ‘Outreach to the Rednecks’ in order to insert their libertarian theories into the middle of the nation’s political passions”.

Personally I think there’s a bit more than cynicism at work here. At best, the Paul camp seems to be tone deaf when it comes to race, simply not understanding what a toxic issue it can be. Taken in conjunction with other things, such as his appearance at the anti-Semitic John Birch Society and his explicitly anti-choice position it suggests that there are some serious limits to Paul’s libertarianism.

That said, however, racial insensitivity hardly marks Paul as an outlier in this Republican field. On the contrary, he has actually shown a good deal more tolerance and humanity than his rivals — in his opposition to torture, in his sympathy for Muslims, and perhaps most of all in his long-standing opposition to drug prohibition. Andrew Sullivan, who is backing Paul, describes him as “one of the few candidates in the GOP field not to have exploited racial code words, homophobia, illegal immigration, or generalizations about Muslims”.

Conor Friedersdorf — who, like me, would prefer Gary Johnson but is sympathetic to Paul — gives perhaps the most considered judgement on the newsletters. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s his conclusion:

“Paul’s association with racist newsletters is a serious moral failing, and even so, it doesn’t save us from making a fraught moral judgment about whether or not to support his candidacy, even if we’re judging by the single metric of protecting racial or ethnic minority groups, because when it comes to America’s most racist or racially fraught policies, Paul is arguably on the right side of all of them.”

And this, of course, brings us to what is really different about the Paul candidacy. Unlike all the previous anti-Romney standardbearers, Paul — whatever his personal sensibilities — is in policy terms deeply out of touch with the majority of Republican voters. They are pro-torture, pro-war, pro-fundamentalism, pro-militarisation of law enforcement in America; Paul is against all of those things.

That has bought him the passionate loyalty of a minority of Republicans, but they remain very much a minority. A Washington Post study points out that “Paul’s supporters are disproportionately young, independent, non-interventionist, non-Christian” and that, in case you didn’t know already, “they are all pretty small minorities in the Republican Party”.

Which, taken all together, is good news for Romney. Of course he would like to win Iowa himself (still a distinct possibility), but the next best thing would be for Paul to win it — because he knows that, however much they dislike him, the Tea Partiers and their like will rally to him if the only alternative is Paul.