It's only been four years since Rand Paul was elected to the Senate as part of the nation's tea party wave in 2010, but the Kentucky Republican's rapidly being taken seriously as a potential mainstream candidate for the presidency, several Republican National Committee members said at its meeting in Memphis this week.
"I don't think anyone could say it's not possible he'd win the nomination," Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri told Politico
Friday. "His mission is convince people of what his coalition would be in November ."
Paul has been traveling the country, trying to expand the party's base beyond its traditional older, white voters, while moving beyond libertarians who follow his father Ron Paul, who has amassed a devoted following during his own numerous runs for the presidency.
On Friday, Paul received a standing ovation in Memphis
after giving a speech to RNC members saying that the GOP does not need to dilute its message, but it does need to communicate better with non-traditional audiences.
"To paraphrase Captain Kirk, we need to go boldly to where Republicans haven't been going," he told members. "We need to go from Harlem to Berkeley, to East Los Angeles and Laredo."
The 51-year-old Paul, like other top-tier Republican hopefuls, has not officially announced his candidacy. However, he's been meeting with support nationwide as he expands past the tea party supporters who put him in office four years ago and works to gather the support of GOP establishment, which he'll need to get the presidential nomination.
Following a speech before the Maine Republican state convention, where he renewed his call for party unity, committee members said they believe Paul's mainstream appeal is growing.
"We had some folks that are categorized as 'establishment' or whatever, who told me that if Rand Paul could speak at every convention, I think everyone would see him as a mainstream guy," Maine national committeeman Alex Willette told Politico.
Getting the nomination is one thing — but winning the presidency will mean Paul will have to win the support of young people and racial minorities, groups the GOP has had difficulty reaching.
The 2016 primary season calendar may favor Paul, especially in the first four states. The Iowa caucuses may work better for Paul than an outright primary, and New Hampshire residents who back Paul's father are expected to support the son as well.
South Carolina may also be friendly to Paul, in addition to Nevada, where libertarians have controlled the state party since 2012.
But it's still early, and Paul is facing some formidable challengers, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Paul is likely to be in the final three, believes RNC committeeman Louis Pope, because of libertarian support.
"He’s broader than 'the libertarian candidate.'" Pope said. "I do see him going further in the process."
However, not all top GOP voices are convinced that Paul could go all the way in 2016, and he has already raised some eyebrows with his recent actions, including sympathy he expressed for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, although he condemned the man's racist remarks after they were reported.
Ada Fisher, a committeewoman from North Carolina, said she is concerned about Paul's skepticism about the Civil Rights Act
after he won his Senate nomination in 2010.
"I thought, ‘Boy, this is really off the wall,'" said Fisher, who is black. "I hope he is not going to be the nominee for the party. We need a nominee who thinks bigger and bolder."
Paul is also being faced by accusations from his father's loyal libertarian followers that he is a "sellout," for his growing associations with mainstream Republicans, said Charles Curley, a Wyoming county chairman attending this week's GOP meetings in Memphis.
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