How Rand Paul can win the 2016 presidential nomination

It's not a slam dunk. But it could definitely happen.

Rand Paul
(Image credit: (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite))

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently reinforced his emerging status as a legit 2016 contender, electrifying the base at the Conservative Political Action Conference and for the second time winning the CPAC straw poll. And like another freshman senator who came from nowhere to secure his party's presidential nomination in 2008, Paul is poised to make a strong run at the presidency.

It's early yet — and anything could happen in the roughly two years before GOP primary voters start casting presidential ballots. But already, Paul's path to a potential presidential nomination is becoming clear. Here, a brief look at how he could do it.

Get the momentum — and run with it: The libertarian Paul doesn't seem like a particularly Iowa-friendly candidate, so his first truly critical test would be to win the New Hampshire primary, where candidates with independent streaks often thrive, and which gets massive media coverage and can launch or destroy a candidate's presidential dreams. Paul is already off to a good start: He topped the WPA Opinion Research poll of attendees at the Northeast Republican Conference in Nashua. Meanwhile, CNN says Paul has already "done something his father never did — top the list of potential Republican presidential candidates in a national poll." A CNN/ORC poll finds that "16 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP say they would be likely to support the senator from Kentucky for the 2016 nomination."

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Woo disaffected and millennial voters: Many voters are disgusted with traditional and predictable partisan politics. Millennial voters in particular seem fed up with the status quo, and many define themselves as independents. And while the GOP has long struggled to attract young voters, the Paul brand of boutique libertarianism has appeal to millennials disillusioned by intrusive government surveillance and aggressive drone strikes. Paul could really boost his numbers in GOP contests if he's able to mobilize young voters who normally sit out the Republican primaries. And it's not that difficult to imagine how Paul's support could snowball if he can convince voters that he's truly a candidate of change. After all, if nominated, Paul would be the first GOP nominee whose ideology is genuinely anchored in libertarianism, with positions that often can't be neatly categorized.

Hope the competition blows it: The GOP's potential 2016 field is both deep and broad, but there is no candidate without flaws. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's conservative support took a hit when he advocated immigration reform. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still grappling with allegations of scandal and corruption. Texas. Gov. Rick Perry has essentially become a national has-been. Texas. Sen. Ted Cruz is despised by many Republicans in Congress due to his open disdain for and active opposition to them. Jeb Bush is burdened by his last name. And so on. To win the nomination, Paul will have to get a little lucky — and count on his competitors to succumb to their flaws, while he rises above his.

So, can he do it? Can he take his father's libertarianism, which has long appealed to niche voters, and make it more accessible to millions of GOP primary voters?

He certainly has some challenges. He'll have to do a much better job of winning over social conservatives and neocons, who tend to distrust him. Indeed, with the latter group, Paul's almost isolationist foreign policy is a real Achilles heel. As The Week's Peter Weber points out, Paul is a non-interventionist in a modern Republican Party that for years has sought to be pretty aggressive beyond America's borders.

But Paul also sometimes seems more a study in political improvisation and confusion than focused ideology. And this is a problem, too. For a taste of a less-than-charitable take on this flaw, check out Forbes' David Adesnik on Paul's shifting positions on Russia and Ukraine:

My best guess is that Paul is desperately searching for some framework or ideology that can justify the dovish, perhaps even isolationist instincts he inherited from his father. Yet he doesn't know enough about foreign policy to think even one or two steps ahead, so he jumps into the breach with a loudly unorthodox position, only to find himself embarrassed when events demonstrate his ignorance. Then he starts firing in every direction, not knowing what to make of a world that doesn't conform to his preferences. I don't get the sense Paul is learning from his mistakes, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see the same pattern play out again before long. [Forbes]

If that narrative manages to take hold among conservative voters, it's hard to see Paul thriving in the GOP primaries.

Rand Paul really does seem to want to transform the Republican Party. But to do that, he'll have to win. And to win, he'll need to retain his father's youthful supporters, work within the Republican Party and employ traditional political skills and tactics, avoid alienating social conservatives and neocons, outmaneuver the competition, woo Tea Partiers, and tap into broad distrust of government surveillance.

That's a lot to ask. But it's hardly impossible.

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Joe Gandelman is a syndicated columnist for Cagle Cartoons and is the editor of The Moderate Voice blog.