Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 headway could pave the path for a future Sen. Rand Paul presidential run. And since the younger Paul hinted earlier this year that he would consider a 2012 bid but wouldn't compete against his father, a run could come as soon as 2016, if Obama wins next year, or 2020, if a Republican other than Ron Paul wins.
The elder Paul's campaign has seen an uptick in success so far compared with his showing in the 2008 race. He came in second in the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, this month, a jump up from his fifth-place finish in 2007. He's polling in the double digits in some national polls, including 12 percent in a CNN/Opinion Research poll and 14 percent in a USA Today/Gallup poll. And a recent Gallup poll shows he'd fare well against Obama were the election held today—45 percent said they'd choose him over the incumbent, compared to 47 percent who preferred Obama. Despite these gains, many pundits and political strategists still view a Paul nomination as a long shot, though of course surprises happen.
But since the 12-term congressman is all about his long-held libertarian principles, the Paul campaign is definitely succeeding at keeping those philosophies in the spotlight. Insiders and Paul watchers say the father and son are very similar, though not in lockstep on every issue, so this attention could bode well for Rand Paul if he decides to run in the future.
And a well-known family name goes a long way in politics. "Obviously, the more attention Ron Paul gets, the more people will also notice Rand Paul," points out David Boaz, executive vice president at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Boaz emphasizes that it is too early to know whether freshman Rand Paul will succeed in the Senate—he's been there less than a year—or what the political world will look like by 2016 or 2020. But he suspects the younger Paul could have a better chance than the elder if he decides to dip his feet in a presidential race, particularly since he has already won a statewide campaign, while his father's wins so far have been in a relatively safe congressional district. "People have a sense that Rand Paul has rounder edges than his father," Boaz says, adding that the younger Paul has picked his battles, focusing mostly on the deficit and federal spending. Like his father, he has advocated auditing the Federal Reserve, but the elder Paul has also called for an end to the Fed altogether. "He is going to be perceived as closer to the center of the Republican Party than his father has been."
Also, the Senate is traditionally a much stronger place from which to run than the House, where Ron Paul has spent 12 terms.
Ron Paul's campaign keeps relevant donors and activists engaged and ready, perhaps, to shift their focus onto his son if the time comes. Paul's 2012 campaign chairman Jesse Benton, who is also married to Ron Paul's granddaughter (Rand Paul's niece), says he already sees a shared base forming between the two. "One thing that Ron and Rand share very, very deeply is that they are very, very sincere, very, very serious, and very, very honest," he says. "I think that's something that Ron's core base of supporters have embraced and will continue to embrace out of Rand."
Ron Paul supporter John Dennis, a member of San Francisco's GOP Central Committee who ran against Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2010, says he would support a future Rand Paul run, as long as the younger Paul doesn't surprise him by supporting something Dennis is "shockingly against." He believes a lot of other Ron Paulites would feel the same, though perhaps not with as much passion and intensity as they support the elder Paul. "But then," he adds, "Rand will pick up support from ordinary Republicans that Ron might not, sort of the typical Republican that Ron would never get" because of some views still considered outside the mainstream.
Benton indicates the younger Paul is not waiting in the wings, biding his time for a presidential run. But like his father, Benton says, Rand Paul cares deeply about fighting for what he believes can fix the nation's problems. "Rand is going to make sure, whether it's in 2012, 2016, or 2020, that he is helping to provide leadership both in Kentucky and across the country in the United States Senate … to help right our ship and do the right things," Benton says. "That could be in several different roles, and he would never close the door to that being a candidate for president himself."
Of course, any talk about 2016, or any future presidential race, is pure speculation at this point. No one knows if the economy will still be in the doldrums, and no one knows what the state of the national debt and deficit will be between now and then. And, of course, no one knows whether or not President Obama will be re-elected.
But David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political action committee that has been involved with the Tea Party, says Rand Paul has another challenge that starts now, one Keating says will distinguish him from how his father is sometimes viewed: "If he's interested in running for president someday, he's going to have to prove himself to be not only a principled legislator, but an effective legislator."
Ron Paul was the intellectual father of the Tea Party, but Rand Paul rode the movement's wave to a 2010 Kentucky victory. If the pendulum of the political climate continues to swing toward an anti-government-spending mood, and if the younger Paul is seen as a successful senator, he could ride that wave even farther.