As Representative Ron Paul, a 76-year-old Texan, slows down his presidential campaign, libertarians are looking for their next champion. But their search will be short.
Over the past two years, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the candidate’s charismatic son, has established himself as a favorite of his father’s followers and a rising GOP star.
“His future is as bright as he wants it to be,” says Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Paul’s upper-chamber mentor. “He is already one of the smartest and most courageous senators, and fearless in defending property rights and fighting for a balanced-budget amendment.”
Should Mitt Romney stumble, the buzz among Paul watchers is that Senator Paul will run for the White House in 2016, looking to build upon his father’s success.
“Rand is showing all the signs of running,” says Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason and author of Ron Paul’s Revolution. “Even if Romney wins in 2012, but he disappoints libertarians, [Paul] may think about a primary challenge. He knows that he’s well positioned for that.”
Over the weekend, Senator Paul spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring meeting in Waukee, Iowa, a state where his father had one of his best showings this cycle. His message there was ecumenical, and he attempted to connect as a fellow conservative, regardless of policy differences.
#ad#“I know not everybody here voted for my dad, but what I will say from a personal perspective is, don’t look at the Ron Paul people or the Rand Paul people as your enemy,” Senator Paul told a small gathering before the event, according to the Des Moines Register.
Drew Ivers, an Iowa Republican who served as Ron Paul’s state chairman, tells National Review Online that libertarian activists are eager to work with Senator Paul, should he decide to enter the presidential fray.
“The Ron Paul–Rand Paul message of limited government is growing, especially as the economic downturn becomes more and more evident,” Ivers says. “[Rand] is a capable messenger and, in some ways, a better one than his father, since he relates well with people at the personal level.”
Sources close to the Paul family emphasize that the ophthalmologist from Bowling Green, Ky., is focused on legislating, but they acknowledge that the younger Paul is determined to be a major force in national debates. A 2016 presidential bid, you can be certain, is not out of the question.
“If President Obama is reelected, which I think is very doubtful, you are going to see a tremendous hunger for a constitution-based leader to emerge,” says Fritz Wenzel, a top adviser to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. “Rand Paul brings everything that Ron Paul brought to the table but with the perspective of a whole new generation. I think that could be a perfect vehicle for a 2016 run, and at this point, the only thing he needs to do is to get more well known.”
#page#A Public Policy Polling survey released this month shows Senator Paul poised to become a primary contender. His favorable rating among Iowa Republicans is 54 percent, which ranks higher than the ratings of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. His unfavorable rating is 15 percent, with 31 percent of respondents “unsure.”
On Capitol Hill, Republican Senate staffers tell NRO, Paul is close friends with DeMint and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, two of the leading tea-party figures in Washington. The trio functions as a small but influential bloc, one that can often be a thorn in the side of GOP leaders.
But Paul’s ability to sculpt his own political brand — close to his father’s views but fully aligned with the Tea Party and the DeMint wing — signals his dynastic ambitions, Republican operatives say. At GOP conference meetings, he reportedly takes an active role, speaking civilly and thoughtfully to his colleagues, many of whom are Beltway bigwigs.
#ad#“He’s not like his dad, who keeps to himself in the House, voting against everything,” one GOP Senate aide says. “Rand has a big personality and has impressed a lot of people here, even if they disagree with him on many issues.” Specifically, his ability to understand the floor and influence procedure has caught the eye of seasoned lawmakers.
But the contrast between father and son is more than generational. On social issues, Senator Paul has taken a higher-profile role in opposing abortion. He shares pro-life views with his father, but when it comes to promoting those views, he has gladly taken to the streets. He spoke at the March for Life and sponsored the Life at Conception Act, a bill that pro-life groups back.
On foreign policy, Paul differs from Rubio and other rising hawks in that he broadly prefers his father’s non-interventionism. But he is far from being an isolationist, a source close to him says, and he understands the need for the United States to engage globally. Ron Paul’s scolding, finger-wagging approach to such matters is not Rand’s method of choice. He shares the skepticism, but he lack his father’s alienating edge.
Otherwise, their political positions are close, though not identical. Senator Paul takes a keen interest in fiscal affairs, as does his father. He has twice proposed his own federal budget, which is a rarity among the freshman class. On civil liberties, the son also shares the positions of his father, opposing the Patriot Act and indefinite detentions.
Paul’s ability to quickly build relationships with Republicans outside his father’s circle has surprised Ron Paul supporters, but it doesn’t seem to have made him an unpalatable insider either. “At times, Rand Paul does try to sound like a red-meat, right-wing Republican,” Doherty says. “Ron Paul never seems to care what people think, whereas Rand frames his politics to appeal to talk-radio conservatives, and you see the difference when they do dual campaign events. Rand has his own political style.”
David Adams, an adviser to Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign, predicts that the senator will assert himself more, now that his father’s campaign is winding down. “He’s got a future which points in that direction,” he says of a presidential run. “I don’t think he’s dreamed of being president his entire life — he’d be fine going home to Kentucky after his time in the Senate is over. But if he sees an opportunity in 2016 to improve the country, I doubt he will decide to sit on the sidelines, looking on.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.