Whereas his dad played the outside scold castigating the GOP, Rand assuages fears that his positions clash with party doctrine. To explain his stand on foreign aid, he asks why the U.S. builds bridges in Egypt or Pakistan when our own infrastructure is crumbling. Unlike his father, he backs Iran sanctions and says a robust defense requires some military bases abroad.

He’s certainly marking the stations of the GOP cross: he recently toured Israel with evangelical leaders and party bosses from South Carolina and Iowa. He boasts a new super PAC, an entrenched network in key primary states and an e-mail list more than 2 million strong. And his publicity burst has caught the eye of GOP fundraisers. “Doors are open that weren’t before,” says a strategist close to Paul. “But them flirting isn’t a date to the prom.”

And the faithful seem ready. In rural Kentucky, he was meeting with local business leaders on a factory floor when a property assessor named T.W. Todd remarked on Paul’s improbably quick ascent from underdog to likely presidential candidate. “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Paul replied.

“It’s almost providential,” Todd says later of Paul’s rise. But, he adds, in a sputtering economy, after two wars, it’s time for the rest of the Republican Party to take a fresh look at Paul’s ideas. “Maybe they’re not so crazy after all.”