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Rand Paul is right where he wants to be in the 2016 race

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 14. Paul has appeal to both tea party crowds and -- apparently -- to Northeastern Republicans as well. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Watch any NBA or NFL draft, and you will quickly grow nauseous at all the allusions to a particular player's "upside." This little word (which we're not sure actually exists in nature) refers to someone who might be a little undervalued and probably won't excel -- but has all the tools to become a superstar.

In the 2016 Republican presidential race, that player/candidate is Rand Paul.

There is little that surprises in the two new polls of the 2016 Iowa and New Hampshire presidential primaries from NBC News and Marist College. In both states, Hillary Rodham Clinton leads Joe Biden by 50-plus points, and the GOP field is a cluttered mess that is nearly impossible to make heads or tails of.

But dig a little deeper, and you see Paul's potential. Moreso than any other candidate, Paul seems to have real paths to victory in both states -- something that has never happened before. It's far too early to say with any certainty what will happen (and we can't emphasize the limited value of early polling enough) but the potential is clearly there.

For a few reasons:

1) He is at least tied for first in both states

The Iowa poll has the Kentucky senator deadlocked with Jeb Bush at 12 percent, while the New Hampshire poll has him in front of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 14-13. In neither state does he have a big lead -- or even a statistically significant one -- but that fact that he's at or near the top is notable.

In fact, no non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has won both states since they were granted first-in-the-nation status in 1976. Not one.

2) He is also the second choice for a lot of voters

Paul is the first or second choice of 22 percent of voters in Iowa and 26 percent of voters in New Hampshire. If you add up all the first and second choices in each state, Paul comes out slightly ahead of the better-known Bush (48-47) and well ahead of everybody else.

In other words, Paul is on the radar screens of more voters in the two earliest presidential nominating contests than anybody else. And that helps.

3) Nobody else has that kind of appeal right now

Early polls of the 2016 contest have shown Paul leading about half the time in New Hampshire and generally running toward the front of the pack in Iowa as well. Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) both led these two states early on but have since seen their support fall off (thanks toe Christie's bridge scandal and Rubio's dabbling with comprehensive immigration reform), and nobody else is as consistently toward the top in both states.

It's very rare that a presidential candidate excels in both of the two early states, given Iowa is dominated by evangelical Christians and New Hampshire has a more moderate bent. And it's generally assumed that any candidate who wins both of would likely end the race right then and there -- as was (essentially) the case on the Democratic side in 2004 with John Kerry.

Paul's unusual profile appears to have appeal to these disparate constituencies. He has spent considerable time appealing to the kind of Christians you'd see in Iowa, but his libertarian streak fits nicely with New Hampshire as well. He talks to both tea party crowds and to non-traditional Republican groups, including historically black colleges.

By contrast, Christie is likely to find tough sledding in Iowa, and candidates like Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum aren't as well-suited to appeal to Northeastern Republicans.

Paul isn't the only one who could seems capable of pulling off an unprecedented two-state sweep, but for now, he seems to have the best chance.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.



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