As Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his presidential campaign embarked this week on a western swing – working their way from Alaska to Utah – they hoped to send a message to his fellow Republican candidates -- that Paul is "in it for the long haul.”
But, without some momentum from successes in the early states, planning for the "long haul" could all be for naught. One longtime Republican operative said, "No momentum in early states means no momentum later, which means no money and no viable path."
This week, Paul is visiting Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah — a long way from the high-profile early nominating contests like those in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and a swath of southern states on “Super Tuesday" — where he said he planned to talk about property rights, criminal justice reform and how billionaire Donald Trump is a "fake conservative." “This is a very important week to show a number of things: The appeal of his message in states where other candidates haven’t been yet,” said Doug Stafford, the chief strategist for Paul’s campaign, and, “our ability to organize and compete where others haven’t gone.”
Alaska's caucus is in late March , and Paul — on his first personal trip to the state — was the first presidential candidate to plant his own flag there this cycle. Utah and Idaho are planning events in the same month. And the other states are looking later — Wyoming in April and Washington in May.
“I think for all these people, the race begins when the race begins – not when you prefer it to," said Stuart Stevens, a Republican media consultant who worked on Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign. "Those first four states are going to be very important."
Writing them off, he added, would be like, "showing up at the Super Bowl at the half and say you prefer it to start now. It doesn’t."
Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown who has advised both parties on the presidential nomination process, said making it through the "long haul," as Paul puts it, would be a steep hill to climb if he was unsuccessful in early contests.
"Paul would have to stay in the news and be invited to the mainline debates, sell the viability of his strategy to the news media, overcome the headlines elevating the winners of the early states and all that entails, and maintain his own supporter and contributor base — a big task to be sure," he said. "But the question is also: can he win any of the large winner-take-all states that vote after March 14?"
Among the early contests, which are typically prioritized by presidential contenders, recent polling shows Paul near the middle or the bottom of the pack.
In Iowa, Paul, like others in the party’s crowded primary field, is having support that might be go to him squashed by Trump. But, he is also trailing retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his two Senate peers, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Paul’s support is also low in New Hampshire . And, in South Carolina , he leads only former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
"It would be disingenuous for any of us to say we haven't lost numbers to [Trump]," Paul said. "The polls are a very early temperature of where people are right now. People are continuing to fall for someone who is a fake conservative."
Paul is not the only candidate making organizing efforts in later states a priority. Cruz made a high-profile swing earlier this month through the South to states that could be part of the so-called "SEC Primary" on March 1.
Aside from polling leads, Cruz and Paul's other competitors have another major advantage: Cash. With about $14 million in the bank between his campaign and affiliated political action committees, Paul trails Bush, Cruz and Rubio .
Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul's campaign, said the campaign believes it is doing fine and is positioned to do well early, "despite what some pollsters might be saying."
While the point of Paul's trip this week was to show his confidence that he could score victories later in the race, his campaign is organizing for a potential loss, too.
Over the weekend, Paul successfully pleaded with committee members to allow him to both run for president and run for re-election to his seat in the Senate, which Stafford on Tuesday described as a "big victory."