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Rand Paul will be a major player in 2016

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), said he would speak for “a few hours” on Wednesday in opposition to John Brennan’s nomination as head of the CIA. “A few hours” turned into 13 hours, close to breaking a filibuster record. (Nicki Demarco/The Washington Post)

Rand Paul is the hottest commodity in Republican Party politics right now. But how high can he rise?

We put that question to a wide cross section of veteran Republican hands in the wake of the Kentucky Republican’s filibuster of John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director last week and got a nearly unanimous response: Paul is already a national leader within the party and will be a major factor if (but really when) he runs for president in 2016.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

The filibuster is the single largest leap I can recall from one act,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who served as a senior adviser for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential bid. “The old guard’s gratuitous and meaningless tantrum attack the next day further solidified his sole position as leader of the new right.” (In the wake of the Paul filibuster, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina defended the Obama administration’s stance on drones.)

Paul demonstrated two very important political traits during the filibuster:

1. He is a person of principle, taking a stand on an issue (drones) that almost no one cares about.

2. Paul has a showman’s sense of the moment, a rare and underrated ability in politics. “He is a PR machine who has an uncanny ability to galvanize the conservative base,” acknowledged one establishment Senate insider granted anonymity to speak candidly. (If you need evidence of that trait, look at how Paul kept chatter about the filibuster going; he did a series of television appearances and penned an op-ed explaining himself on the front page of The Post’s Outlook section Sunday.)

Perhaps the best way to explain Rand is through the lens of his father — former Texas congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. What Ron demonstrated in his bids for the 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential nominations is that there is a not-insubstantial constituency for libertarian-tinged politics — heavy on distrust of the federal finance system and a wariness of foreign entanglements. What Ron’s campaigns also showed was that there was a fundraising vein to be mined among that community; Paul raised $35 million for his 2008 campaign and $41 million four years later, the vast majority of which came from online donations.

But to simply assume that Rand is a clone of his father is a mistake and sells the Kentucky senator short. In fact, Rand is better understood as the next evolutionary step of his father’s politics. He enjoys that same devotion among the libertarian wing of the party but is far savvier about how he talks about some of his more controversial positions.

“Somewhat surprisingly, and as the events of the week demonstrated, Rand Paul has shown the ability to connect with mainstream political and thought leaders as well,” said Phil Musser, a former senior adviser to Tim Pawlenty in his 2012 presidential bid. “That’s a key distinction that could make a candidacy more serious and was something his dad was never able to do.”

Jesse Benton, who managed Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid and is running Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection operation, said of Rand, “He has the ability to greatly broaden his dad’s coalition and reach traditional Republicans and evangelicals in a way his dad could not.”

All of the above is not to say that Rand Paul is not without major potential problems. A look back at his 2010 campaign for Senate proved not only that he has a very strong appeal within the party base (he smashed the establishment pick in the GOP primary) but also that his libertarian views carried to their natural conclusion could get him into very hot political water.

Days after winning the GOP nod, Paul suggested that private businesses should not be forced to abide by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a view that turned him into a national scourge. But even in that episode, there is evidence of how Paul differs from his famous father. He quickly pulled back from his initial statement and steadied the ship. He went on to win the general election by double digits.

Yes, the 2016 presidential race is a long way off. (What’s 1,000 days between friends?) But make no mistake: No one watching the race, whether or not they have a candidate in the potential field, underestimates the impact a Paul candidacy could (and almost certainly will) have on the contest. That goes double after what Paul showed he could do with his filibuster (and its aftermath) last week.

“Rand Paul is more than capable of providing a top-tier challenge in 2016,” said Chris LaCivita, a Virginia-based senior GOP strategist. “His understanding of the issues and where they intersect with the basic foundations of liberty inspire legions of followers.”

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