Can Rand Paul attract the young and minorities to the GOP?
Of course he can. But that's not the question if Senator Paul wants to run for president. He may be able to appeal to younger, hipper voters and some minorities, but, as this Politico story points out, in the process of attracting those groups, he cannot alienate traditional Republican voters.
It's a narrow tightrope for Paul to walk. Every break with his party on national security and foreign policy - and there have been several - threatens to make it that much harder for him to shed the isolationist tag in the eyes of the Republican establishment. Every entreaty to libertarian-leaning college students who adored his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, could complicate the task of creating some space from an element of the GOP regarded in some quarters as radical, even kooky.
But Paul's success or failure could have big implications for a party that's been watching young, urban and minority voters flock to the Democratic Party with no apparent counterstrategy. If he can make a dent in that Democratic coalition by using his libertarianism to woo young voters and others who don't traditionally fall in the GOP camp, Paul could help his party forge a path back to the White House.
"He has a particular appeal to young people with libertarian views, about keeping government out of our lives ... even in a Republican primary he might get a strong share" of that vote, said longtime GOP strategist Charlie Black, who has worked on presidential campaigns for Republicans including Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush. At the same time, Black added that Paul's views are "out of step on foreign policy and national security with the mainstream Republican Party."
Even as the national mood swings away from interventionist approaches, Paul's emphasis on privacy in national security debates, coupled with his inward-looking approach to foreign policy, gives pause to some party stalwarts.
"Clearly, everybody is tired of wars that seem to drag on and on," said GOP strategist Whit Ayres. "On the other hand, a strong element of the Republican coalition believes America has both a moral and a self-defense obligation to lead in the world."
Yet Paul's more libertarian approach to those issues makes him stand out to young voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic demographic despite a recent poll showing President Barack Obama's approval rating floundering with that group.
It's impossible to predict what the political landscape will look like 3 years from now, but if national security and foreign policy are viewed more importantly than they are today, Senator Paul may be in trouble. On the other hand, Paul has an unlikely ally in President Obama, whose retreat from the world actually deemphasizes national security as a presidential issue. No doubt Paul's call to cut defense spending will resonate with budget hawks and the young alike. But if the world blows up in the meantime, Paul's views may become largely irrelevant.
Without pandering to race, gender, or age, Rand Paul may end up fabricating a winning formula for the nomination and the general election.