Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is playing nice with the GOP establishment. Kind of.

The Kentucky Republican has offered his support to three Republican incumbents vulnerable to conservative primary challenges, something that would have been unimaginable for his father, but could yield long-term political benefits for the younger Paul.

Paul's lone-wolf Senate efforts and activity in the early presidential nominating states grab the most attention. But his positioning across the 2014 Senate campaign landscape is just as revealing.

Paul on Monday offered strong words of support, if not an official endorsement, to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), boosting a Republican who has been working overtime to avoid a primary challenge.

"I’m very supportive of Senator Alexander, and I hope he doesn’t get an opponent. I really do," Paul said on a swing through Nashville, where he toured a charter school with Alexander. "I hope he wins reelection and I’m very supportive of him, but I just don’t want to get trapped into all these political games because that’s really not why I’m here."

There are tea party activists in Tennessee who would like to take down Alexander, but a serious challenger has not surfaced yet. Alexander has been doing all he can to avoid one, including featuring tea party icon Paul in his first ad. The two worked together on a measure to protect fishing access. And their shared interest in charter schools illustrates there is an overlap in policy interests.

The same can be said of Paul and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who faces a primary challenge from Liz Cheney. Paul has pledged his full support to Enzi, with whom he has co-sponsored legislation. It's also worth noting that Cheney's father, former vice president Richard B. Cheney, backed Paul's 2010 Republican primary opponent.

So did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the most notable of Paul's endorsements so far this cycle. McConnell faces businessman Matt Bevin in the GOP primary, but Paul has long made clear he has McConnell's back. Taken together with the fact that McConnell's campaign manager is a Paul loyalist, and you have one of the most unlikely political marriages in recent memory.

The reality is that the Paul-McConnell relationship is symbiotic. McConnell could use some of the freshman's tea party star's sheen; Paul, a potential 2016 White House contender, could use some good will in the establishment wing of the party where McConnell and -- perhaps more importantly -- influential donors and power players reside.

The same can be said of supporting Alexander and Enzi. If they win reelection, Paul would have a leg up over the potential 2016 competition in competing for their support, and more importantly, their networks.

It all sounds very pragmatic -- and very much not they way Paul's father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, operated. He kept the GOP establishment at a safe distance. The GOP establishment did the same to him.

Those close to Paul, who last cycle supported tea party favorites such as Ted Cruz and Mark Neumann, say his endorsements are simply a reflection of who he thinks the best candidate is in a given race.

"There will be many more endorsements in the future," said Doug Stafford, a top Paul adviser. "If you look back, it is hard to say his Rand PAC endorsements have meant anything other than who he thought was the best person in a situation."

That may be, but it's impossible to overlook the political impact of Paul's maneuverings so far this cycle. For someone who still needs to sell himself to the mainstream wing of the GOP in order to have realistic designs on higher office, allying himself with McConnells of the world is a good idea right now.

It's also another reflection of where Paul differs from his father. And his willingness to move beyond the niche Ron Paul carved out is what makes Rand Paul such an interesting -- and potentially powerful -- political figure to watch.


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Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D) endorsed Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D) a day after Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman (D) would not.

Obama welcomed the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants to the White House.