When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news.
When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government regulation of the economy, for instance, but doesn't want drug legalization like many actual libertarians), he distinguished himself mostly by displaying a remarkably superficial knowledge of policy and saying that restaurant owners ought to be able to refuse to serve black people if they want, a practice outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and yes, now he says he always supported it, but he didn't—you can read an explanation here).
But in the last couple of months, Rand Paul may have gotten more news coverage than any other Republican in America, always including mention of the fact that he's thinking of running for president in 2016. How did he do it?
It certainly isn't because Paul is such a towering moral and intellectual force. He did it by staging a couple of events that 1) were a little unexpected and unusual for a Republican, and 2) were actual events, meaning they offered video for television stations to use and audio for radio stations to use. The media couldn't resist, particularly when their alternative for coverage of the GOP is yet another question about the budget shouted at John Boehner or Mitch McConnell as they stride through the halls of Capitol Hill.
So first you had Paul's filibuster of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director, during which he demanded answers from the White House on whether they have drones hovering over your local Arby's, waiting to rain Hellfire missiles on some dude who forgot to pay his estimated quarterly taxes. There were some substantive problems with Paul's approach (the real issue with the drone program isn't its potential use here at home but how it is being deployed abroad and will be in the future), but it was unusual enough (an actual talking filibuster, a Republican concerned about civil liberties) that it caught fire on a slow news day, making Paul the Brave Truth-Teller of the moment, something the media can't resist.
He followed that up with this week's speech to students at Howard University, and the picture of a Republican senator speaking to a largely African-American audience was also irresistible. Substantively, the speech was a train wreck, simultaneously condescending and ignorant; Josh Marshall described it as "an example of what happens when a staunch conservative steps out of the GOP's tightly-drawn racial nonsense bubble and hits an audience not dying to be convinced that the GOP's problems with non-whites are the results of boffo misunderstandings about a Republican party that is actually the best thing that ever happened to black people" (you can read all about what he said and how the students reacted in this report from Alternet's Adele Stan). But he didn't care. He was all over the news again, and he even followed up the speech the next day with an appearance on "Tell Me More," a nationally syndicated NPR show hosted by Michelle Martin that has a large audience among African-Americans.
It doesn't matter than approximately zero black people were persuaded to become Republicans by Paul's laughable retelling of history (briefly: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were Republicans; Southern segregationists were Democrats; please ignore the last 50 years of Republican race-baiting and vote suppression; why aren't you voting for us?). He understands what George W. Bush tried to teach the GOP, and Republicans since forgot. Making a show of appealing to minority groups isn't so much about winning their votes (a bonus if it happens, but not necessary) as it is about cultivating an image as a "different kind of Republican." That not only can win you the votes of white moderates, it gets you media attention, because reporters are always looking for something different. A Republican senator from Kentucky speaking before an audience of conservative white people isn't news; a Republican senator from Kentucky speaking at Howard is.
For the record, I'm pretty certain Rand Paul is never going to be president of the United States, or even the nominee of the GOP. He might, however, be more of a mainstream contender than his father was. If he could combine the support of Ron Paul's Ayn Rand cultists with some primary voters drawn from the rest of the party, he could be a serious candidate. Now he just needs to keep this streak going with the next event that makes him look different from his colleagues and grabs the media's attention. I'm sure he'll come up with something.