While Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has not officially declared a bid for the White House in 2016, his presidential ambitions were on full display here as he traveled across the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Paul kicked off a three-day swing thru Iowa on Monday, taking him to eight different cities along the way and several fundraisers for congressional candidates…

“I don’t have to remind you who won in Iowa for the presidency last time and the time before. I am not casting any blame on any individual but Iowa didn’t do their part, ya’ll gave us the president who is messing up the country,” he said, noting that a “bigger, broader coalition” must be created for success.

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“Rand Paul is for real—a 100%, dead-serious contender, and anyone who underestimates him should have his head examined,” said Phil Musser, a Republican strategist who advised GOP presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney but is unaffiliated with any potential 2016 candidates. “He has changed the perception that a Paul could never win the nomination.”…

Mr. Paul’s candidacy, by contrast, is taken as fact. On Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) unabashedly linked Mr. Paul with the last native son of their state who sought the White House, calling him “the most credible candidate for president of the United States since Henry Clay.”…

Sen. Paul’s inner circle includes about a half-dozen veterans of his Senate campaign and the presidential campaign of his father. Sen. Paul’s leadership PAC has hired three veterans of presidential campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, a step toward a national campaign that no other 2016 hopeful has taken. “We’re trying to have a basic infrastructure in place before the general election, so if he formally announces after November we’re ready to go,” said Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman running Mr. Paul’s leadership PAC in that state.

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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Hillary Clinton is not “fit to lead the country” Friday, mocking the former secretary of state’s comments about her wealth and condemning her response to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi…

Paul asked his audience to observe a “moment of silence” for Clinton’s finances.

“Somebody must have been praying for her,” he said, “because she’s now worth 100, 200 million. I tell you, it was really tough giving those speeches.”

But at least she didn’t suffer alone, Paul joked: “She had her limo driver with her for the last 17 years to commiserate.”

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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul sought to undercut Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, by reviving an immigration-related attack used in the 2012 campaign…

“President Obama won’t send them home, and Gov. Perry has done the same thing by giving them in-state tuition. That’s a beacon without any kind of border security,” he said.

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He has been working to make the case that he has appeal beyond the GOP. “The GOP base is frankly not big enough to win national elections; it’s not big enough, in probably some states, to win statewide elections,” he said.

He said winning national elections will require a “bigger, broader coalition” and new ideas. His examples include reaching out to minorities and urban dwellers with a focus on criminal justice, education reform and slashing taxes and regulations for potential employers in impoverished urban areas…

Paul, asked to elaborate on his plans for 2016, said, “We don’t really have a definite plan yet but I’m told beyond thinking about it, that some of it is coming out to meet people and see whether or not your message resonates, see whether or not you can help other candidates to win, that kind of thing.”

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But, Paul said during a speech in Iowa City this afternoon, getting to the bottom of the government’s financial troubles means “you have to look at entitlements.”

“I’m not for getting rid of Social Security or getting rid of Medicare,” Paul told the audience of about 130 mostly gray-haired Iowans. “I’m saying how do you save them? Social Security’s $6 trillion short. Medicare’s $35 trillion short. The way you save them is you’re going to have to have some tough love.

“Those of you on Social Security and Medicare, nothing will change. My generation will have to wait a little longer to get it. It’s the only way to fix it. You can fix two-thirds of the Social Security problem by raising the age two months a year for about 30 years,” he said.

Paul said President Ronald Reagan did that in 1983, moving the age for eligibility for retirement benefits from 65 to 67. It’s necessary to make another shift because life expectancy is now 80 years old, Paul said.

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What’s new is the way Paul is courting African-Americans. He has moved beyond the economic arguments that anchored those previous outreach efforts to embrace criminal-justice reform with a passion unprecedented in modern Republican politics. Few Democrats, in fact, have matched the fervor of Paul’s case against drug laws that have disproportionately incarcerated minority men. While reform isn’t imminent, he could be helping to clear the space that will ultimately produce it. “We haven’t really seen a Republican, and I can’t think of many Democratic senators, who [has] been this out front in trying to reform the criminal-justice system,” says Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for rethinking sentencing rules…

Paul has walked his talk by cosponsoring legislation with Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders; restore voting rights and access to welfare and food-stamp benefits for more former prisoners; and reform the juvenile-justice system. That agenda might not precipitate an immediate GOP electoral breakthrough with African-Americans, but it’s serious enough to provide the party its best opportunity since Kemp to engage that community.

By scrambling the usual party alignment, Paul also has the potential to reshape the sentencing debate, much as Bill Clinton did with welfare reform. The question is whether Paul, as Clinton did, can convince his party to join him.

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A politician attempting to iron out his position as he seeks higher office isn’t new or remarkable. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, another possible presidential contender, has been doing the same as she blitzes the country on her new book tour. Ditto for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. What is remarkable, however, is the effort Rand Paul has put into clarifying where he stands on the issues just this past year, which, if anything, is a testament to his provocative political history.

In an MSNBC interview last week, Paul denied ever objecting to parts of the Civil Rights Act, even though fact checkers concluded he was trying to “essentially erase what he said in 2010” about the landmark civil rights legislation…

Before Russia annexed Crimea earlier this year, Paul chided Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for issuing a preemptive warning to Vladimir Putin to keep his hands to himself. “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea,” he told The Washington Post at the time. But a few months later, the isolationism he and his father, Ron Paul, preached went out the window. The younger Paul urged the president “stand up to Putin” by reinstituting missile-defense shields in former Soviet republics like Poland. The entire transformation was thoroughly captured on Red State.

Or take Syria, where Paul staked out four different positions with respect to the U.S. effort to remove chemical weapons from the regime of Bashar Assad in 2013.

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Rand Paul had the benefit of observing both what made his father likable and popular, and what made him an also-ran. The elder Paul had many elements of a marketable message—but sounding, as he does, a bit like someone who might stop you on the street to hand you a pamphlet about gold, he was the wrong messenger. Paul has clung to their shared isolationist, minimalist government ideals—particularly marketable is his opposition to the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs, which has generated outrage and diplomatic upheaval—while moving toward the center-right establishment. He is comparatively statesmanlike, and wears his willingness to do what it takes to win on his sleeve—but unlike in scripture, the sins of the father may be visited on the son in presidential politics.

Last week, as it emerged that Paul was leading the polls in Iowa–where the caucuses will be held in 17 months–and in New Hampshire–the location of the first primaries, his father offered his opinion on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in the form of a column. In it, he chided “western media outlets” for rushing “to repeat government propaganda on the event”; and President Obama for holding a press conference “before an investigation” had been conducted. He wrote: “western media and politicians joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster. It had to be Russia; It had to be Putin, they said.”…

“The very thing that makes him formidable could very well prove to be the very thing that makes him difficult to vote for—and that’s his last name,” Hogan Gidley, a veteran Republican operative, told me. To be electable, Paul will have to find the balance between appealing to the libertarian base that he inherited, and to establishment voters. “I don’t know that it’s balanceable,” Gidley said. “It’s just a very difficult balance. Rand Paul is a very talented politician … but the question you asked me wasn’t ‘Is he a skilled politician?’ The question was, ‘Is he skilled enough to master that balance?’ And I don’t think he is, and I don’t know that anybody is.”

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