The most wide open Republican presidential contest in modern times is shaping up, so a thousand things could change in the 80 long weeks before the first scheduled caucuses and primaries take place. And a couple hundred of them surely will.
With that enormous caveat stipulated up front, it's worth recognizing that one aspirant is having a bit of a moment. Rand Paul has been generating at least as much policy, fundraising and organizational buzz this summer as any other potential candidate, and certainly more than the other possible contenders out of Congress.
Paul will be returning to the Senate Monday afternoon after spending three days in San Francisco, a highly unusual weekend destination for a conservative from Kentucky. But the senator concluded he had opportunities on three fronts to advance his nascent bid. He could raise money from Bay Area entrepreneurs sympathetic to his libertarian views. He could recruit some tech geeks to join his fledgling campaign staff. And he could deliver the keynote speech at a technology conference, to sell the notion that his views about free markets and personal privacy ought to be catnip to Silicon Valley.
It was Paul’s second such trip in as many weekends. The previous foray was to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was invited to the super exclusive annual conference on media and technology organized by the investment bank Allen & Co. His time there reportedly included private meetings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
When the August recess starts, Paul will be the first among his most ambitious senatorial colleagues to get to a more traditional political locale — he'll spend three days in Iowa starting on Aug. 4 raising money for several county Republican organizations. The groups, of course, are crucial players in getting out the vote for the Iowa caucuses, which are (for now) scheduled to kick off the national nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. It will be Paul’s fourth visit to the state during the 113th Congress. The senator is hoping to benefit from the political footprint left by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who built committed followings in the state when he ran for president in 2008 and 2012. The younger Paul’s political action committee has also hired two former Iowa GOP chairmen, A.J. Spiker and Steve Grubbs, presumably to drive his campaign there. (RANDPAC this month also brought in Mike Biundo, who ran former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania’s presidential bid two years ago, to create Paul’s operation in first-primary-in-the-nation New Hampshire.)
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won’t be back in Iowa until Aug. 9, when he’ll speak to the Family Leadership Summit, a major gathering of Christian evangelicals in Ames. Santorum, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana also are confirmed for that event.
Neither Paul nor a third senator who could run for president, Florida’s Marco Rubio, are on the program. And neither Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin nor Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who have been wooed to enter the 2016 fray, have any announced plans to stop by the Hawkeye State this summer.
When not on the road, Paul has been assertively using his Senate platform for his upend-the-old-order style of policymaking.
He and another nationally ambitious first-term senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, have teamed up on a pair of ideas that are pretty outside the Republican box. In June, they unveiled Senate language similar to what the House has already gotten behind to prohibit federal prosecutors from pursuing medical marijuana cases in states where it’s legal. And this month — after taking a selfie together — they unveiled a bill designed to make it easier for ex-cons to find decent jobs, including by restoring some eligibility for government benefits and smoothing the process for having their criminal records expunged.
Paul is also the force behind another idea that has stalled in the Senate but that won endorsement in the House last week: A rider on the appropriations bill governing the District of Columbia that would prevent the city from enforcing virtually any of its strict gun control laws.
Perhaps most notably, last week he staked his claim as forcefully as ever on the isolationist side of the Republican foreign policy divide. The capital’s GOP establishment is too committed to “formulas that haven’t worked, parroting rhetoric that doesn’t make sense and reinforcing petulant attitudes that have cost our nation a great deal,” he wrote in Politico .
His muscular defense of his wary-of-intervention philosophy was in response to a Washington Post op-ed by Perry, who took Paul to task for opposing most foreign aid and seeming “curiously blind” to the threat to U.S. interests created by the new unrest in Iraq. Two of the most prominent players in the interventionist wing of the party, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Vice President Dick Cheney, went out of their way to counter Paul’s arguments with assertions about the importance of American might in deterring terrorism and stabilizing world order.
Their eagerness to take Paul on is yet another reflection of how senior Republicans have concluded he’s become a credible enough presidential prospect to be worth acknowledging.
The most recent polling should buttress that conclusion. Surveys out last week by NBC News and Marist College found Paul with the best favorability ratings of any of the likely candidates in both Iowa (66 percent) and New Hampshire (71 percent). That Iowa survey and a new Quinnipiac poll in Colorado have the senator as the only Republican in a statistical tie with Hillary Rodham Clinton in both swing states. And the Real Clear Politics average of five national polls since May shows Paul with 13.2 percent support, much less than “undecided” but a smidgen above any of the others. (The Rubio and Cruz averages are each 7 percent.)
Even two full years before a Republican nominee is anointed, those numbers and all the attention are at least worthy of note.
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