Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who declared himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, is the most important candidate in the race. Not the best, not the most interesting, not the one who is most likely to win.

No, he is merely the most important, because we will learn the most important things from his candidacy about the Republican Party, its future and the American future

If he does not catch fire, it will put an end to the idea that the GOP has turned its back on its Reaganite foreign-policy roots.

If he does catch fire, the party will be making a revolutionary, and suicidal, shift.

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Paul’s pre-announcement video, which declared that “on April 7, a different kind of Republican will take on Washington,” hints at this, and reports on his campaign message and tactics make it even more explicit. “He intends to focus heavily on young voters and minority outreach,” The Hill reports, “and will make the pitch to Republican primary voters that his efforts to expand the party make him the candidate with the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election.”

It’s an expansion of the message that Paul has been delivering to the GOP for a while now, in various forms—that for Republicans to succeed in the future, they must “evolve, adapt, or die” in order to continue to be relevant and successful as a political party.

Notably, this … pitch to non-traditional GOP voters is also a pitch to traditional GOP voters. He’s not just saying he’s the candidate for outsiders; he’s saying that he’s also the candidate for current insiders who want to expand the party’s reach. 

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On why he would be a better nominee than Jeb Bush, Paul said, “It’s … a little bit like Clinton: yesterday’s news, in the sense we’ll get more of the same. … [F]or a long time in our country, people have wanted to go with safe. ‘Oh, this is safe: His brother has been president, his dad has been president. Let’s go with safe.’”

“Well, Romney was kind of safe and we maybe didn’t excite enough voters to actually win. … Frankly, the question is whether or not in this increasingly diverse country of ours, whether or not you can excite enough voters to command a majority. And I’m pretty sure that safe isn’t going to win anymore.”

As for his father, Paul said: “We don’t agree on everything, but not everybody agrees with their dad on everything. … There are a lot of people who actually became involved in politics because of him. And I think my job is to take what he started and make it bigger.”

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For the most part, Paul has been far, far better in pushing a small-government, libertarian-ish agenda than any of the other likely GOP presidential candidates. He has called for getting the federal government out of pot prohibition and marriage (though he’s getting wobbly on the latter). He’s published budgets that call for year-over-year spending cuts and he hasn’t put forward a terrible tax plan that blows open the budget again to give bigger child tax credits to all Americans regardless of income while also limiting the deduction for the poorest parents (that’s Marco Rubio). He has staked out a general foreign policy direction that is non-interventionist in principle, even if he’s getting more and more enamored of making exceptions to the rule. He fundamentally changed the conversation about privacy, drones, and government surveillance. Unlike Ted Cruz, he doesn’t come across as a political panderer who seems less interested in winning meaningful political battles than in engaging in vestigial displays of rigid principle. Paul is actually trying to reach out to new audiences for himself and the GOP more broadly…

Dispositional libertarians are almost certainly looking for a major-party candidate whom they can get behind in a general election. Since winning his Senate race in 2010, Rand Paul looked like he was that candidate. To the extent that he separates himself from the other Republicans in the primaries by asserting libertarian bona fides and explaining how reducing the size, scope, and spending of government will benefit most if not all of the traditional Republican interest groups, he still may be.

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In the first salvo of the 2016 Republican ad wars, a conservative group is about to unleash a seven-figure ad campaign targeting Senator Rand Paul for being out of step with the party on Iran, just as he launches his presidential campaign…

The scale of the campaign is remarkable this early on in a primary fight, and reflects not only the depth of the hostility toward Paul’s worldview among many conservatives but also the prominence of national security in the 2016 cycle…

Reed declined to disclose his group’s donors. As a registered nonprofit, the group doesn’t have to reveal its funding sources. But there has already been reporting that several big-dollar Republican donors are planning to open up their checkbooks to attack Paul on foreign policy, including as pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

The ads threaten to disrupt Paul’s launch by forcing him to choose between appeasing his critics or staying true to the libertarian base that brought him this far.

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“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul; he and I are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said on ABC’s This Week in March. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world, and I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad, but I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did.”

Cruz has also gone after Paul on an issue championed by the Kentucky senator: reforming the NSA’s data collection program.

While Cruz voted in November to pass a reform bill, Paul voted against the measure, saying it would not solve the problem. That left Cruz with enough daylight to launch an attack. 

“Unfortunately, Rand voted no,” Cruz said at the time. “He did say it didn’t go far enough, but it failed by one vote.”

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Paul’s pitch to rebalance American foreign policy continues behind the scenes as he seeks to make inroads with influential policy and opinion-makers, as well as former generals and diplomats. For the past 18 months, the senator’s convened regular meetings with household names from foreign policy establishment circles for briefings and to articulate his worldview. Aides deliberately seed the groups with people they know will disagree with him. In many cases, Paul aides say, the skeptics leave the meetings with a far different impression – or at least a newfound respect – for his command of the facts…

“I don’t consider him as someone with his head in the sand,” Friess says of Paul. “He is one very smart guy who loves this country and wants to pick his battles carefully when American lives are at stake.”…

Cliff May, who created a national security think tank in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, actually sees both the perception of Paul as anti-interventionist and his rivals as war hawks as overblown media machinations…

[I]f Paul is making the lone nuanced argument against a wide field of clear-cut interventionists, May posits, “He may have the market advantage.”

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“The media treats him better than they treat other Republicans,” says a top Republican operative. “He gets a free ride, but that free ride is about to end, because now he’s going to be in the crossfire.” The media haven’t dwelled on Paul’s fringier views, particularly on foreign policy, the operative says, because Paul is an interesting and colorful politician who has been a vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy. “They felt the same way about Huntsman,” the operative says, referring to former Utah governor and China ambassador Jon Huntsman, whose middle-of-the-road views attracted some attention when he ran for president in 2012…

Though much has been written about what Paul owes to his father, and to the trouble Ron Paul’s troubling views might cause him on the campaign trail, less attention has been paid to the times at which Rand Paul’s own views have veered into conspiratorial territory. While courting libertarian voters on the campaign trail in 2010, Paul sat for interviews with the talk-radio host Alex Jones, a 9/11 truther whose audience donated generously to Paul’s campaign. He co-authored a book with, and hired to his Senate staff, a controversial talk-radio host who flirted with neo-Confederate views and was known as the Southern Avenger. He has said that former vice president Dick Cheney launched the Iraq War in order to benefit the oil-fields company Halliburton, for which Cheney previously served as CEO. And in February, he said that vaccines have done damage to healthy children, though he rushed to clarify that view…

The campaign manager of one rival presidential campaign says he has a strategy for the possibility that Paul makes himself a top-tier candidate, as the senator hopes to begin to do on Tuesday, but he doesn’t worry about it happening. “People will start talking about the crazy-person stuff once they view him as a threat,” he says, but “I don’t consider Rand Paul a threat.”

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“From the end of the Bush years up through 2013 and ’14, there was a war weariness that was permeating even Republicans,” said David Boaz, author of a new book “The Libertarian Mind.” “However, the videos of ISIS beheading Americans and other people have certainly made it more difficult to stick to a noninterventionist argument.”…

The tea party wave that the accomplished eye surgeon expertly surfed to the Senate six years ago is not the force it once was…

Successful campaigns are akin to catching lightning in a bottle — and represent a rare convergence between a candidate’s personality, policy ideas and the political demands of a unique moment in time…

But it’s just as possible that the moment in history when a candidate with Paul’s potential and profile could win came during the anti-Big Government backlash that took place at a time of huge bank bailouts and foreign military excursions — when he was not yet a national figure.

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As Paul builds momentum and strengthens his organization, he may be able to win in the future. His is an emerging movement based on the increasingly shared consensus reaction to events. Clearly, the factors that are impelling his rise will continue to be felt and grow as the years progress. Americans are indeed getting tired of endless wars in an ever-expanding list of countries against newly hatched enemies. But with each beheading by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we forget our fatigue and are roused to new heights of indignation. And Republican voters are worried that the party’s position on abortion is costing it vital support from America’s women, ghettoizing it in a white male enclave.

But these trends have more years to grow until they become mature enough to command majorities. Right now, they are good enough only for second-place finishes.

Paul will finish second to Ted Cruz or third to Cruz and Scott Walker among the Tea Party activists. He will be the second choice of economic and fiscal conservatives behind Jeb Bush. Huckabee and Cruz will beat him among evangelicals. Anyone will be more attractive to advocates of national security.

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Perhaps in a decade or two, a representative of the libertarian wing of the party will have an easy time winning the nomination. It’s just unlikely to happen in 2016.

The libertarians remain too young and too few to present Senator Paul with a realistic path to the nomination. He has to win over a much larger share of more reliable Republican primary voters, who will have considerable reservations about Mr. Paul’s policies. The other problem he faces: Many of the voters most receptive to libertarian views tend not to vote…

[W]e still find only a small number of Republicans who consistently agree with Mr. Paul’s libertarian views. Only 8 percent of self-identified Republican-leaners in the Pew data take the libertarian position on four issues that he emphasizes: disapproval of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program; support for a more restrained American role in the world; skepticism of the efficacy of military intervention; and a relaxation on drug sentencing…

[W]hen liberal cultural politics conflicts with libertarian principles, the liberal views of these voters often prevail: 65 percent think the country should do “whatever it takes” to protect the environment; just 57 percent think the courts should interpret the Constitution strictly, as it was originally written; and 31 percent think it’s more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights. These voters nonetheless identify as Republicans because of their views on assistance to the poor and individual responsibility.

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As the press struggles to label him, Paul’s plunge into the primaries has the potential to upconvert his opponents. His value to Republicans is that his final position on a number of issues cannot be predicted from his past statements. This is valuable, and not a knock against him, because his unpredictability will force the rest of the field to respond in real time to a politician who seems willing to change his mind…

[T]here’s a genuineness to his interestingness, and if you listen to him for a while, you get the sense that he’s puzzling out his positions on issues, just like the rest of us do. His political mind is not fully formed. This is not an insult…

He is also taken with criminal justice reform. He really wants to reduce the number of black men in prison. He says so, and has sketched out some ideas of how he might achieve this. Since Republicans have long used racial coding in their rhetoric to win the hearts of a certain type of white voter, his candor has to be authentic…

Paul himself is not dangerous, yet, to the other, more established Republicans who are running. But his viewpoints might be. There’s a reason why Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and others are quick to lump Paul’s foreign policy views in with the dastardly President Obama’s. It’s because they’re afraid that those views really do reflect the consensus within their party, and they oppose their proliferation as ardently as if Paul was actually promoting Iranian nuclear weapons.

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Recall how Paul won his first political race: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had handpicked Secretary of State Trey Grayson for Kentucky’s open Senate seat in 2010. Eighteen Republican senators funded Grayson in the primary. Only one funded Paul. Grayson raised half a million dollars from PACs in the primary — 20 times what Paul raised from them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Grayson in the primary. Paul attacked Grayson for the “AIG Lobbyists” who threw fundraisers for him, which were swarming with lobbyists.

This was the K Street/GOP Machine. Rand Paul demolished it, beating Grayson by 23 points. That victory, on May 18, 2010, was the day the dam broke in the Tea Party flood…

[I]f any conservative is to govern as a conservative after winning the White House, he will have to treat K Street and the GOP establishment with suspicion. “Too often,” Paul said Tuesday, “when Republicans have won, we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington Machine.”

In a crowded field, the odds are against Paul being the Republican nominee. But the party would benefit if they made Rand Paul their conscience.

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