Rand Paul for president? Why else is he in Iowa?

US Sen. Rand Paul is making a splash in Iowa this weekend, and he'll soon visit New Hampshire and South Carolina. Can the libertarian-tinged maverick Republican successfully run for president?

Matthew Holst/AP
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., greats supporters after speaking at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner event Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Sen. Paul opened his presidential exploration tour with a splashy set of speaking engagements in Iowa designed to broaden his tea party brand.

He hasn’t announced it as such, but Sen. Rand Paul is taking major steps to launch a 2016 presidential bid.

This weekend he’s in Iowa, to be followed by trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina – early and important states in the Republican race to choose a nominee.

Like his father before him – retired US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, who ran for the White House three times – Sen. Paul of Kentucky leans libertarian, which raises two important questions about his future:

Can he generate the enthusiastic, loyal following his father did over the years – mostly younger idealists geared to flood the primary/caucus season?

And will more traditional Republicans – however you want to define a “traditional” GOP these days – come to accept his position on things like immigration, gay marriage, and national security?

“He’s the most fascinating guy in politics today in America,” David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, told nky.com, a Gannett online news site for northern Kentucky. “But on widespread appeal, I think the jury’s out.”

The way Paul sees it, "People are looking for something different.”

“You might accuse me of being not exactly the traditional cookie-cutter Republican," he told reporters Friday during a string of political events in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I do know the GOP needs to grow and I want to be part of growing the GOP."

"We need to have a Republican Party that looks like the rest of America. We need a more inclusive, diverse party," he said. "We cannot compete unless we are going to go out and say to African-Americans, we want you in our party."

For instance, Paul favors relaxing federal sentencing laws for drug crimes, which disproportionately penalize racial minorities.

He’s also against a federal ban on same-sex marriage. Personally, he thinks “marriage” means one man and one woman. But he’d leave it up to the states to set their own laws and regulations – which does not sit well with many social conservatives in the Republican Party.

“He’s tried too hard to please too many people on too many issues,” Cary Gordon, an evangelical conservative minister in Sioux City, Iowa, told the Gannett online news site. “I can’t support him. He’s got too many contradictions for me.”

One way to judge a potential candidate’s seriousness is to look at who he attacks – in this case the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

At the Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln dinner Friday night, Paul continued his theme that then-Secretary of State Clinton was “absolutely responsible” for not preventing or at least adequately responding to last year’s terrorist attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

“It was inexcusable, it was a dereliction of duty, and it should preclude her from holding higher office,” he told a crowd of about 500 prominent Republicans.

It may be 1,276 days until the 2016 election, but at some point Paul – if he’s to make a serious run for the White House – will have to put together a professional campaign organization.

“For all Paul’s success as a media brand and a mobilizer of the conservative grassroots, the Kentucky senator has done relatively little since 2010 [when he won his first Senate primary] to assemble a political machine around his own personality,” notes Politico’s Alexander Burns. “For now, the Rand Paul project is a high-wire act that works largely without a net.”
In a recent survey of registered Republican voters in Iowa, Paul won 39 percent of the vote with Marco Rubio next in line at just 20 percent. (Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton won 43 percent with Vice President Joe Biden winning 27 percent.) Earlier this year, Paul won a straw poll vote at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

At a Monitor-sponsored press gathering last month, Paul said he would not decide whether to run before 2014. Meanwhile, he’s just unique enough among the GOP field – and just different enough from his father – to keep drawing attention.

“Rand is going to try to thread that needle between social conservatives and the liberty grassroots part of the party,” Bob Vander Plaats, a former candidate for Iowa governor and the president of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based coalition that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, told Bloomberg News. “If he’s able to do that, he’ll be very formidable. There’s a lot of intrigue about him right now.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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