David Adams, a Kentucky tea party activist and former campaign manager for Sen. Rand Paul, remembers a conference call from the 2010 Senate race when the conversation turned to talk of their favorite presidents. Some said George Washington, others Abraham Lincoln. Adams pick? "Rand Paul in 2016," he recalled.
Three years later, Paul is acting like he’s already preparing a future presidential campaign, courting activists from early primary states, smoothing out his positions on foreign policy, and delivering a high-profile national address, competing against a potential future GOP rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Last week he spoke at the Heritage Foundation, seeking to dispel the perception that he's an isolationist and embracing George Kennan's containment philosophy. The speech comes after a high-profile visit to Israel where Paul, a vocal opponent of foreign aid, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called the country America's "most vital ally in the Middle East." Accompanying Paul on the visit were evangelical activists from the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, a sign the senator wanted to shore up his relationship with devout Protestant Christians, a key part of the Republican voting bloc.
On inauguration day, when his colleagues packed onto the West Front of the Capitol for the president's address, Paul traveled to South Carolina, an early presidential primary state, to speak at a conservative event.
And Tuesday, he will be giving the Tea Party Express’ official response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union, sharing airtime with another potential 2016 contender, Sen. Marco Rubio who is delivering the GOP's official response.
"He's clearly doing lots of calculated things to prepare for a bid for president," said Dale Emmons, the president of the American Association of Political Consultants and Kentucky Democratic strategist.
But while Paul is making all the expected moves ahead of a possible presidential run, his foreign policy views and principled libertarian positions could threaten to further split the already-divided Republican Party. Instead of rallying behind Rubio’s Republican response, he’s stepping on the toes of the GOP rising star.
"He and I don't always agree, but this isn't about he and I," Paul said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union. "This is about the tea party, which is a grass-roots movement, a real movement, with millions of Americans that still are concerned about some of the deal-making that goes on in Washington."
But even as Paul seeks to persuade the GOP establishment that his views on fiscal policy are increasingly within the mainstream of the GOP, he is still at odds with defense hawks, and pro-Israel advocates. American Enterprise scholar Frederick Kagan called Paul's foreign policy speech at Heritage a "more artful" defense of Obama's foreign policy than the president has ever made himself.
Paul’s hoping that his close relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will pay dividends as he tries to broaden his appeal within the party. He’s given McConnell cover from a tea party challenge to his right, while McConnell has praised his record and advised him on legislative strategy. It’s a win-win arrangement that gives Paul significant credibility with the establishment as he raises his profile.
"We've had, harkening back to the very early days of Rand Paul's campaign, we had a lot of people pushing back very hard until they figured it wasn't beneficial for them to do that any more," Adams said.