WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ron Paul's loyal band of supporters are just accepting now what many have known for a long time: the Texas congressman's White House bid is fading badly.
Paul's poll numbers are down and he has no chance of earning the Republican nomination. He is 29 percentage points behind front-runner Mitt Romney in a poll for Tuesday's Wisconsin primary.
Now, the main questions remaining are whether his followers will switch their allegiance to another candidate, and if Paul can still carry his libertarian banner into the Republican convention in August and beyond.
Paul's message of sharply reducing the role of government, scrapping the Federal Reserve and ending the U.S. military presence overseas is unique to him. Many of his followers say they would not vote at all in the November 6 general election if Paul were not the Republican nominee.
"I would have a hard time voting for anybody in the general election," said Mike Hurlock, a junior at the University of Maryland, where a crowd gave Paul several standing ovations during a 50-minute speech this week.
"I'm not a fan of anyone (other than Paul) in the election."
Romney is also likely to easily beat Paul and the other Republican hopefuls at Tuesday's primary in Maryland. Paul has won none of the state nominating contests in the 2012 election season, despite boasting the most passionate supporters and committed volunteers on the ground.
Earlier this week the 76-year-old congressman energized about 2,000 people at the University of Maryland, where the arena echoed with chants of "President Paul, President Paul" and "End the Fed, End the Fed."
But fired up fans do not always translate into support at the ballot box, said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.
"There is a level of excitement at rallies - so going to one of his rallies is sort of an act of defiance. But voting is very solitary," Mackowiak said.
Paul is now holding only a couple of campaign events a week, compared to several a day by the top two candidates Romney and Rick Santorum.
Polls show Paul commands around 12 percent of the Republican vote nationally.
He is unlikely to drop out of the race soon, but some of his backers may gravitate toward Romney in the vote for the nomination, Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said, noting that Paul and Romney have maintained cordial relations in the often bitter campaign.
"Paul supporters are not fans of Romney, but one thing for sure is that Ron Paul would rather have Romney than (Newt) Gingrich or Santorum," O'Connell said.
Paul's campaign was always about promoting his libertarian cause of limited government, rather than being a feasible attempt to win the nomination.
"For Paul people, the important thing is what we believe in," said supporter Chris Shelley in Maryland.
"What carries me through is that win or lose this election, this movement is going to go on," said Shelley, who voted for Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. "He is a figurehead of a movement."
Paul himself seems focused beyond the nomination fight.
"An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped," he said in the Maryland arena. "That is what I see and am experiencing. Be encouraged. Have fun doing this. Freedom is popular. Get out there and spread the message."
In some ways, Paul was ahead of his time.
"As the party as a whole is having a larger conversation, certainly our nominee will take the positions of stopping runaway spending, trying to reduce the debt and deficit - all of which are a major part of what Ron Paul's candidacy was," Republican strategist Doug Heye said.
While he has been very successful with small donations and is second only to Romney in total campaign fundraising, Paul lags far behind in the number of delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
So far Romney has won about 565 delegates - twice as many as his closest rival Santorum - while Paul has only 66, according to Real Clear Politics. A candidate needs 1,144 to win the nomination.
In the end, Romney may turn to Paul for support and his delegates if it looks like the nomination battle will go all the way to the convention in August.
"The fact that Paul has those delegates really allows him to expand his message potentially to the convention where he could have a say in the platform," O'Connell said.
The most likely elements of Paul's platform that could be adopted at the convention include his push for a strong dollar policy and greater transparency at the Federal Reserve.
But establishment Republicans will likely shy away from Paul's more radical foreign policy views like practically doing away with U.S. involvement overseas and massive military cuts.
If the party offers Paul a speaking role at the convention, they will have to figure out how to contain him, analysts said.
"They're going to have to try to find a way to strike that balance between what he wants to say about foreign policy and what he wants to say about domestic policy," O'Connell said.
"It's a real tightrope they're going to have to walk but I'm sure that not having him have a say in it could leave some people very angry in a very tight election," O'Connell added.
Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Beech