Some candidates come to a presidential race with a résumé that demands that they be immediately treated like serious contenders—a governor, a long-serving senator, a former or current vice president. Others have the less tangible quality we might refer to as "talent," which reporters can easily identify and can make up for a shorter list of accomplishments (e.g. Barack Obama in 2008). And there are usually one or two candidates who have the résumé but turn out to be duds on the trail, failing to raise significant money or win over significant numbers of voters (think Tim Pawlenty in 2012 or Chris Dodd in 2008), eventually getting downgraded from "serious" to "we no longer have to pay attention to this guy."
But what do you do with someone like Rand Paul? Of course, at this stage you don't have to actually decide how seriously to take him—it isn't as though news outlets are stretched to the breaking point with all the reporters they've assigned to cover the campaign and need to make urgent decisions of staffing and column inches—but he is a puzzlement. On one hand, he's a first-term senator (the first public office he's ever held) who hasn't exactly blown everyone away with his intelligence and charisma. His quasi-libertarian ideology presents some potentially grave problems with a Republican primary electorate that leans heavily evangelical. His opponents are going to tar him as soft on terrorism for questioning things like President Obama's reliance on drone strikes. Imagine him navigating the grind of the campaign, and it's easy to foresee him having a Rick Perry "Oops" moment or two.
And yet. In his short time in Washington, Paul has managed to garner an extraordinary amount of good press. And as Robert Costa reports today, Paul is moving more aggressively toward 2016 than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. While the rest of them are publicly thinking about thinking about running, Paul and his people are working like busy little beavers:
Rand Paul's nationwide organization, which counts more than 200 people, includes new backers who have previously funded more traditional Republicans, along with longtime libertarian activists. Paul, of Kentucky, has also been courting Wall Street titans and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who donated to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, attending elite conclaves in Utah and elsewhere along with other GOP hopefuls.
For the rest of this year, his national team's chief duties will be to take the lead in their respective states in planning fundraisers and meet-ups and helping Paul's Washington-based advisers get a sense of where support is solid and where it’s not. This is especially important in key early primary battlegrounds, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and in areas rich in GOP donors, such as Dallas and Chicago.
Costa's article has lots of details: Paul is raising money, putting together a staff, lining up organizers in key states, and building a social media network. It's pretty impressive for this stage of the campaign. Of course, it could all wind up like his father's presidential campaigns did: a well-funded effort with passionate supporters who were nevertheless finite in number.
The comparison between the Pauls only goes so far, though. Rand's libertarianism is a lot looser than Ron's was, and the son is willing to cast it off when it threatens him. And he doesn't come off like your crazy old neighbor.
So maybe the best answer to how to think about Paul is, a candidate is as a candidate does. We have no idea how he'll react to the intense pressure of the campaign. But we don't really have to decide yet whether he's "serious." He's acting serious, and for the moment that's enough.