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Rand Paul, 2016 Republican front-runner

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The first eight-plus months of 2013 have convinced us of one thing: Rand Paul acts and the rest of the potential 2016 Republican presidential field reacts.

On drones, Paul led a 13-hour-long filibuster that drew Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (among others) to the floor in support.

On Syria, Paul was out front in his opposition to a military strike -- a position that 30 of his Senate Republican colleagues shared as of this writing.  Those 30 include both Rubio,who voted against the use-of-force resolution in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Paul, in short, seems to be a step or two in front of the ongoing transformation of the RepublicanPparty from a hawkish conservatism to a sort of populist libertarianism. (Make sure to read BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins interview with Rand in which he expounds on that idea.)

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 like Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

And, Paul -- as he showed with his civil rights comments during the 2010 Kentucky Senate campaign -- 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 Texas Rep. Ron Paul) or otherwise writes him off would do well to study the year in politics so far. No one in Republican politics 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 about 2016 in 2013 is something short of purely scientific. These rankings can and almost certainly will change regularly in the coming months and years. The No. 1 ranked candidate is considered the most likely to wind up as the party's nominee as of today.

10. Mike Pence: The Indiana governor is flying way under the radar at the moment but, as Matt Lewis argued in a recent piece for the Daily Caller, he has many of the makings of a potential 2016 dark horse: social and fiscal conservatives like him, he's a charismatic communicator, and, perhaps most importantly, he doesn't work in Washington, D.C. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. 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 favorite 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. One big question: Does Kasich really want to undertake another national bid? (Previous ranking: 6)

8. 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 from Obamacare will be a feather in his cap among conservative presidential primary voters, and his reform message is potentially powerful, too. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. Scott Walker: The Wisconsin governor may have a bit more of a race on his hands then 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 is more interested in running than we believed. If Ryan runs, it's hard to see Walker also getting in. (Previous ranking: 4)

6. Ted Cruz: Cruz is the biggest attraction among rank-and-file Republicans at the moment. He evokes genuine passion among the base -- and that's not ever to be underestimated. But, it's also worth remembering that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann held that title once upon a time, and she held it much closer to the time when voters were actually set to cast votes for president. Buzz is valuable, but without some substance beneath it, it's not enough. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Jeb Bush: This is our holding-pattern ranking for the former Florida governor. If he announces he's running or even that he's moving toward running -- heck, we'd take a Bush trip to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina -- then he is likely our No. 1 on the list. But, he's not doing much of anything regarding the coming presidential race at the moment, so he stays where we've had him for months. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Paul Ryan: See our note above about our previous underestimating of Ryan's interest in running. The coming fights over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling are ready-made for Ryan and will (re)increase his profile nationally. We still are skeptical that he has the political chops to run a two-plus year campaign for the Republican nomination. Ryan's seeming aversion to surrounding himself with any political strategist types just reinforces that notion. (Previous ranking: 8)

3. Marco Rubio: We've had Rubio ranked No. 1 since we started doing our 2016 rankings at the end of 2012. But, his front-runner status has clearly come into question in the aftermath of his work to pass comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate. Yes, he was the key figure in making that happen, but the bill's fate remains decidedly uncertain in the GOP-controlled House and is still not popular among the party's grassroots. For those who write Rubio off because of immigration, however, go back and watch his speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. He is someone of considerable political talent. And that doesn't just disappear. (Previous ranking: 1)

2. Chris Christie: Watch Christie's first ad in his walkover 2013 reelection race. Then imagine that as the start of telling the Christie story to a national Republican audience. Pretty powerful stuff. Yes, Christie has something of a base problem given the (false) idea that he somehow cost Mitt Romney the 2012 election because of his embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy. But, Christie's regular-guy populism is a nice fit for the times. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Rand Paul: He's not a clear front-runner. But, if you are looking for a candidate who can (a) raise the money, (b) has a clear and compelling message and (c) has an obvious edge in an early state (Iowa), then Paul is the only person in the top three who checks all three boxes. We repeat what we said above: Underestimate him at your own peril. (Previous ranking: 3)