Rand Paul rising: 2016 in sight?

Sen. Rand Paul is getting lots of attention since his filibuster on drones and his enthusiastic reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Can he convert that into a serious run for the presidency?

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, March 14. In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce March 19, Paul unveiled his immigration policy and outlined his platform for reform.

Rand Paul is the junior US senator from Kentucky, a medical doctor from Bowling Green who never held elective office until two years ago.

Yet Senator Paul – a libertarian Republican like his father, former congressman Ron Paul – is getting more attention than any of the other would-be presidential candidates at the moment.

It was announced this week that Paul will headline the Republican Party of Iowa’s annual “Lincoln Dinner” in May. That’s Iowa, where precinct caucuses early in a presidential election year kick off the selection of delegates to the party convention. It’s a big deal.

“Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster earlier this month caught the attention of Republicans across the nation who are seeking GOP leaders who will stand up to Barack Obama,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker told the Washington Post. “As the ‘First in the Nation’ state, we immediately extended an invite to Senator Paul to allow him to introduce himself to Iowa Republicans.”

(It should be noted that Mr. Spiker was a Ron Paul supporter during the 2012 presidential campaign.)

Writing in Politico this week, James Hohmann listed “five reasons why Paul will be a force to be reckoned with ahead of 2016, even if the odds of him winning the nomination are long.”

The reasons: He has a stronger organization than any other Republican; He’s perceived as principled; He’s more cautious than voters realize; He appears to have fewer skeletons than his father; He can play the inside game in a way his dad never could.

For any politician, appearing principled and yet flexible (without flip-flopping) is required for success.

One of the hottest topics in the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” report on how to secure a better future for the GOP was the need to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

Paul’s position here has shifted notably in that direction. As a candidate for the Senate in 2010, he favored an electronic fence along the whole 1,969-mile US-Mexican border, and he questioned the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution granting citizenship to children born in the US to illegal immigrants.

This past week, he told the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he supports a legal status for illegal immigrants to remain in the US, working and paying taxes while they go through the citizenship process – not specifically a “pathway to citizenship,” as even some Republicans are urging, but a far cry from the hard line “self-deportation” urged by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

At last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Paul edged out Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the presidential straw poll 25-23 percent among a long list of possible candidates. His speech to the assembled conservative activists was enthusiastically received (more so than Rubio’s rather flat offering) – especially by the college students and other young activists who comprised the bulk of those voting in the poll.

It’s those young voters the GOP needs to attract. But at CPAC, was it more than the charged-up Paul loyalists – a mix of libertarians and some tea partyers – that were bused in to such events to cheer (and vote for) Ron Paul in 2011-12?

At the moment, it’s not just those loyalists who seem to be fascinated with Rand Paul.

Washington Post pundit Dana Milbank – usually more inclined to tweak if not pummel right-leaning politicians – confesses “with some trepidation” that he “stands with Rand” (the mantra Sen. Paul supporters tweeted by the thousands during his drone filibuster).

He mentions Paul’s apparent shifts on immigration and same-sex marriage (something to do with the tax code), the drone filibuster (“a stance Democrats would have championed if a Republican were president”), and Paul’s vote to confirm Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary – one of only four by Republicans.

“Taken together, these pleasant surprises suggest that Paul is more complex than his tea-party caricature and more savvy than the libertarian gadfly his father had been,” Milbank writes. “In his speech to CPAC, the younger Paul didn’t even mention the Federal Reserve or the gold standard [Ron Paul favorites]. He has spoken, instead, of reaching out to minorities, young voters and other Democratic constituencies.”

 It’s very early days in the 2016 presidential race, of course, and a lot could change as Republican hopefuls jockey for position.

But Paul “seems to demonstrate the interest in expanding his support beyond libertarian conservatives, something his father rarely did, and he will have three years to experiment with how to find the right formula,” writes political polling guru Nate Silver on his New York Times “FiveThirtyEight” blog.

That doesn’t make him as likely a nominee as a more traditional candidate like Sen. Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, or Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Silver writes. “But his odds look better than the 20-to-1 numbers that some bookmakers have placed against him.”

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