Two years ago, on a balmy August morning in Ames, Iowa, I was in the lobby of a small hotel, surrounded by twentysomething libertarians. They were waiting patiently to get a picture with Ron Paul, then a Texas congressman and their pick to be the next president. Finally, they spotted him around the corner near the elevators, huddling with Jesse Benton, his campaign manager. They went over and asked him for a picture. Paul obliged, but he didn’t seem too happy about being bothered. He flashed a half-smile, patted a young man on his back, and then scooted away.
A few minutes later, Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky showed up, arriving in a blue campaign bus with his wife, Kelley. He strode into the lobby and immediately began to grab hands and shoulders. He laughed, made small talk, and posed for picture after picture. While his father was upstairs, getting ready for town-hall meetings and television interviews, Rand was an ambassador to the campaign’s rank-and-file supporters. Watching the scene, you couldn’t help but think that, for Senator Paul, it was a practice run.
This week, as Rand Paul takes his first steps toward a presidential campaign, all of that practice may begin to pay off. He is set to speak in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, where he’ll headline the state party’s Lincoln dinner. According to officials, the event is already sold out. But the interest in his visit, even at this early stage, is unsurprising. Iowans, who have long been obsessed with presidential politics, are already curious about how Paul is framing his message, years ahead of the 2016 caucuses. They want to see whether Paul can use that charisma, and his newfound celebrity, to bridge the Iowa GOP’s factions in a way that his father did not.
Building a strong, viable Iowa network, with ties to the party apparatus, may be easier for Rand Paul than it was for his father. Instead of being an outside contender, he can cast himself, right from the start, as a man of both the grassroots and the establishment. In Iowa, the Ron Paul movement is now running the show. A. J. Spiker, the state GOP chairman, is a former Ron Paul volunteer, and was instrumental in extending the coveted Lincoln dinner invite to the senator. “I’ve known Rand for a few years,” Spiker says. “He toured the state with his dad ahead of the caucuses. People really like him, they like his constitutional conservatism, and we’re expecting more than 500 people, plus 40 media outlets, to show up.”
With Spiker at the helm, Paul knows that the state GOP isn’t working against him. That institutional support matters in Iowa, where politics is all about relationships, trust, and coalitions. A year ago, Ron Paul finished third in the caucuses after pouring considerable resources and time into the state — a major disappointment. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Paul never had the early, unofficial blessing that his son is being given. Social conservatives and business leaders were firmly in other camps, and national publications barely covered the congressman’s early trips to Sioux City and Waterloo. These days, Iowa’s Republican grandees may not be working for the younger Paul, but they’ve cheered his ascent.
Behind the scenes, Paul’s team, led by strategist Doug Stafford, is taking advantage of this evolution of the Paul brand within Republican politics by connecting the senator with activists and donors. He’s not actively campaigning, but he is keeping in touch. Before Friday’s dinner, Paul will meet with the event’s sponsors at a private reception. The state’s GOP kingmakers — congressman Steve King and senator Chuck Grassley — will be there. His inner circle wants him to get Iowa’s conservatives interested in his candidacy before other candidates swoop in. More Hawkeye State events are being planned, as are stops in other early-primary states.
Friday’s Cedar Rapids speech is the latest part of that wooing process. Senator’s Paul’s pre-2016 efforts, however, began long before this month. During the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Senator Paul spoke to the Iowa delegation a day after his father’s frustrated supporters threatened a floor fight. Even then, his outlook was decidedly on the future, and he urged them to be ready for the next battle, whatever that may be. “In the end, we didn’t win the nomination,” he told them, according to the Des Moines Register. “But it’s about participating. It’s about being here, and it’s about making the platform better.”
Steve Scheffler, a member of the Republican National Committee, tells me that he’ll be at the dinner on Friday, listening closely to what Paul has to say. He confides that he and other Republicans are familiar with the Kentucky senator, but they’re still not entirely sure about where he stands on the issues. “The verdict is still out,” Scheffler says. Ron Paul supporters, he adds, are “cautious” about rallying too quickly to Rand’s side. “I think there will be some rollover from his father’s campaign, but there’s going to be a wait-and-see period,” he says.
Scheffler says one specific issue he wants to hear more about is immigration, since he and others have heard that Paul is open to a pathway to legalization, which isn’t a popular position, especially in conservative western Iowa. Other Iowa Republicans tell me that they want to hear more about his foreign policy positions. They want to hear about how close he hews to his father’s worldview. Sources close to Senator Paul, though, say that Friday’s speech isn’t so much about giving a policy talk, but about sounding a bigger theme about leadership and liberty.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about the next election,” says David Fischer, an Iowa GOP co-chairman and former Ron Paul adviser. He too got to know Rand during last year’s campaign. “We’ve sold every ticket in the room, and I think it’s because the country is changing and people are looking for someone fresh, like Rand, who can get beyond the rhetoric and talk frankly about limited government,” he says. “I’m not going to handicap the race this far in advance, but people here admire him. They like his father, but believe me, they know that he’s not the same guy.”
When he takes the podium, Paul will be balancing all of these perspectives. It’ll be, in part, a reintroduction. He’s one of the most famous names in politics, but Iowans are still figuring him out. They love what they think he stands for, but they want to hear more. And if Paul’s retail politics are any indication, he’s more than happy to spend time wining them over. Last cycle, he was the surrogate who’d take picture after picture with students. This time around, he’s the Republican who’s hitting Iowa’s rubber-chicken circuit long before the campaign.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.