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It’s time to start taking Rand Paul seriously

Two things happened over the weekend in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

1. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul led the field in a national poll conducted by CNN/ORC International.

2. Paul won the straw poll at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference.

Those two events come just a week after Paul cruised to another 2016 straw poll victory at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Add those things up and it's quite clear that Paul is the candidate of the moment on the Republican side.  There's no one  -- not even Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush -- who has the sort of devoted following of Paul. And, the Kentucky senator has a number of other built-in advantages over the other oft-mentioned 2016 candidates -- many of them due to his father's bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012.

To wit:

* Fundraising. Then Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) raised $35 million for his 2008 presidential campaign and collected $41 million for his 2012 campaign. The $35 million figure is probably the floor of what the younger Paul can raise in 2016, a total he can harvest simply by re-upping with many of the same people who gave to his father. That's a significant nest egg on which to start a presidential primary campaign in which the field is likely to be very crowded -- meaning that the cash pie will be split a million (ha ha) different ways. Paul, unlike anyone else in the field, has a fundraising stream almost all to himself. People who gave to his father in 2008/2012 are not the sort of people who are traditional Republican establishment donors; they are for Paul or no one.  And, there is evidence that Paul the younger isn't content with just collecting checks from his father's network. He was in Atlanta in January, for example, meeting and greeting establishment donor types, one of a series of such events that he has done over the past months.

* Iowa and New Hampshire. It's easy to forget how well Ron Paul did in both early-voting states in 2012. In Iowa, he came in third -- behind Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney -- with 21.5 percent of the caucus vote. He was less than 4,000 total votes away from winning. In New Hampshire, Ron Paul finished second with 23 percent -- wracking up almost 57,000 votes in the process. Combine his showing in those two states and Ron Paul did considerably better in actually attracting votes than more "establishment" candidates like Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty.  So strong was the Paul organization in Iowa that it wound up taking over the state party apparatus -- although A.J. Spiker's decision not to run for a second term as party chairman will remove one prominent Paul-ite from the ranks of the Iowa Republican leadership.

* Libertarianism on the rise. There is, without question, an expanding libertarian streak within the Republican party -- particularly among younger voters. The ideas of limiting foreign entanglements, spending less time cracking down on marijuana use and being OK with same-sex marriage are all growing in terms of their mindshare within the GOP. Need evidence? Six in ten young Republicans -- defined as between 18-30 years of age -- are in favor of same sex marriage in new Pew data. Rand Paul is positioned at the center of this movement and, if he is able to mobilize these libertarian-tinged Republicans, has a bloc of voters that none of the other Republican candidates can tap into.

If you add up the advantages that come from inheriting his father's (underrated) political and fundraising operation with Rand's ability to soften the edges around his libertarianism -- in a way his father never could or didn't want to do -- you have a candidate with a unique and lasting appeal to a segment of Republicans. Questions, obviously, remain. Among them: 1) How big a segment of Republicans are Paul-ites and can he grow their ranks? 2) How will Paul hold up under the increased scrutiny that comes with being seen as a genuine presidential contender? 3) Has he put plagiarism, civil rights and aqua buddha behind him? Or are those just a sampling of the political problems Paul might encounter going forward? (Make sure to read Dave Weigel's piece on the overrating of Rand.)

But, every candidate in the potential 2016 Republican field has questions he or she needs to answer. None have the built-in infrastructural advantages that Paul enjoys. That's why it's past time people start taking him seriously as a potential Republican nominee.