Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney debate Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz. (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images )
Mitt Romney and Ron Paul -- friends, and a political odd couple. But are they in "cahoots" in the Republican primary fight?
Rick Santorum can't help but think so these days. Though Paul hasn't campaigned yet in Michigan, which at this point is a showdown between Romney and Santorum, Paul has a television ad running there that calls the former Pennsylvania senator a "fake conservative."
It's an attack Paul gleefully repeated in Wednesday night's debate, prompting Santorum to later publicly speculate about a Romney-Paul alliance.
"Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks," he said in the spin room after the Arizona tilt.
Sen. Rand Paul, son of the Texas congressman, added more fuel to the speculation the same day when he told reporters in Kentucky that he would be "honored" to be considered as a potential running mate for Romney. Hardly a firm commitment, but enough to drive the meme.
"Whether it's true or not that there has been an actual meeting of the minds in conversations and strategy developed between the two guys, it is clear that there's a hands-off policy between Paul to Romney and vice-versa," conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show Thursday. "Paul does not attack Romney. Ron Paul attacks every one of Romney's opponents; Romney doesn't attack Paul."
Paul, who has maintained a fairly substantial campaign war chest throughout his campaign, has had a knack for going on the air against some of the lead "anti-Romneys" of the moment.
So what would the two have to offer each other if there is an alliance?
For Paul, it's popularity among GOP voters that Romney needs. Exit polls from the initial primaries and caucuses have shown Paul tends to have support from younger voters, lower-income voters and those who lean independent – all areas of weakness for Romney.
But Paul's voters also have been the most resolute -- to use a term Romney used to describe himself during Wednesday's debate – in support of their chosen candidate. There's hardly a guarantee that they would swing toward Romney if Paul dropped out.
What does Romney have to offer Paul? If the former Massachusetts governor wins the nomination, a seat at the table. Paul remained in the 2008 GOP race far longer than any other challenger, even after John McCain had clinched the nomination. But when it came convention time, he was nowhere to be found – not on stage in prime time, at least.
Paul's delegate-driven strategy, if successful, will guarantee him a say no matter who the nominee is. But some believe he may have the best chance of playing a significant part under Romney. And if not for Paul himself -- who said he won't run again for his House seat even if he doesn't win the nomination -- then some think he's trying to secure a future for his son, Rand.
Romney's backers deny any alliance, informal or otherwise.
"Clearly Congressman Paul has said things about Gov. Romney that have been favorable, but they've also been accurate," Tim Pawlenty, a former contender and now Romney backer, said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today. "I know Mitt, and I know Ron Paul. ... Probably the last person to quote, unquote cut a backroom deal in American politics would be Ron Paul."