Republican political consultant Patrick Ruffini thinks it’s plausible that Ron Paul –­ the Texas congressman who, as Reason’s David Weigel pointed out earlier this week, “has the most cash of any Republican outside the first tier and more cash than the bottom three Democratic candidates” in the presidential race –­ could finish second in the Ames straw poll next month. Ruffini writes on his personal blog:

Romney, given his dominant position organizationally in Iowa, should still win. Even with the rest of the top tier not participating, he won’t be able to let his guard down, lest he be ambushed by one of the second tier. Should Romney underperform against someone not even playing at Ames, or against someone not taken seriously, that’s a blow to his Iowa inevitability.

Does Paul placing a close second make the straw poll and its winner into a laughingstock? Do benched McCain or Giuliani supporters direct people to vote for Paul to ensure that outcome? Or does this portend something bigger? I see that Ron Paul is up to 3% in the Gallup poll, above Huckabee and Brownback.

On the other hand, the Ames straw poll is just the sort of shakedown of presidential candidates that Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen says has become too common in Iowa politics. Squeezing the candidates for dough is one of the reasons that “Iowa will lose its first-in-the-nation caucuses some day,” Yepsen writes. Among his complaints:

Pay the state GOP to rent space for booths and tents at the party’s big straw poll in Ames. They did that through an auction. Primo spots went for $25,000. Crummy ones for $10,000. That’s in addition to spending millions to buy tickets and hire buses so their people can vote in the thing.

“[W]hat’s happening now goes beyond simply defraying the costs of staging events. Caucus campaigns have become political profit centers,” Yepsen adds. “Many of the 2008 legislative and congressional campaigns in both parties in Iowa will be financed with money squeezed from presidential candidates.”