Paul, in short, seems to be a step or two in front of the ongoing transformation of the Republican Party from a hawkish conservatism to a sort of populist libertarianism.
That’s not to say, of course, that significant strains of resistance to the vision of the Republican Party that Paul is offering don’t remain. They do. And it remains to be seen whether the establishment, such as it is — elected officials and major donors, primarily — can unite to keep Paul from the nomination in favor of a politically “safer” choice such as Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
And Paul, as he showed with his civil rights comments during his 2010 Senate campaign in Kentucky, holds some controversial views that can — and will — get him into trouble in the glare of the national spotlight.
But anyone who laughs at Paul as a serious contender, dismisses him as just a carbon copy of his father — former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) — or otherwise writes him off would do well to study the year in politics so far. No one in the GOP has had a better year than Paul. And it’s not all that close.
Below are our rankings of the 10 candidates with the best chance of winding up as the Republican presidential nominee. While this should go without saying, making predictions in 2013 about 2016 is something short of purely scientific.
10. Mike Pence: The Indiana governor is flying way under the radar at the moment, but he has the makings of a potential 2016 dark horse. Social and fiscal conservatives like him, he’s a charismatic communicator and, perhaps most important, he doesn’t work in Washington.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor’s poll numbers have recovered remarkably well from his first few years in office, and he now looks like a modest favorite for reelection against much-touted Democratic nominee Ed FitzGerald. If Kasich wins in 2014, he has a case to make as a swing-state Midwestern governor who previously served as the chairman of the House Budget Committee and who ran, albeit briefly, for president in 2000.
Bobby Jindal: We believe that Jindal’s stock was probably a bit too high a year ago and is now a bit too low. His numbers in Louisiana still aren’t great, but they are better than earlier this year. Jindal’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act will be a feather in his cap among conservative presidential-primary voters.
7. Scott Walker
: The Wisconsin governor may have a bit more of a reelection race on his hands than he originally thought with wealthy former Trek executive Mary Burke running for the Democratic nomination. And we hear from reliable Wisconsin sources that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is more interested in running than we believed. If Ryan runs, it’s hard to see Walker also getting in.