Freshman Sen. Rand Paul insists that he won't decide until next year whether a 2016 presidential run is in his future.
But comments the Kentucky Tea Party Republican made this week at a newsmaker breakfast about a run — "we're considering it" — as well as upcoming speaking engagements in early caucus and primary states Iowa and New Hampshire suggest serious consideration.
He also drew national attention last month for his 13-hour filibuster of President Obama's nominee to head the CIA, over questions about the domestic use of drones. He's among those currently featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People In The World" issue, and recently gave a high-profile speech at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C.
But as his national profile continues to rise, the new generation Paul will have to come to terms with one intraparty issue that has divided Republicans and thrown a number of state party organizations into turmoil: his father's political legacy.
Advocates may tout Paul's built-in support and money networks established during 2008 and 2012 presidential runs by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, but many view the dad's libertarian legacy as a decidedly mixed bag.
Though many state-level Republicans who disdained his father, largely over his noninterventionist foreign policy stance and a demeanor they believed stopped short of presidential, are indicating a willingness to give the younger Paul a listen, they say he has work to do.
Iowa Party In Turmoil
"Ron Paul and his supporters have left a very bad taste in the mouth of many Republicans," says Jeff Jorgensen, a Republican county chairman in Christian conservative western Iowa. "I don't want anyone out there to get the impression that we're throwing in with Rand Paul."
He describes the party as having devolved into disarray since Ron Paul supporters took over top state leadership positions, as well as some county chairmanships.
The party's current state chairman, A.J. Spiker, was vice chairman of Paul's 2012 Iowa campaign.
Iowa is not the only state where Ron Paul's supporters wrested control from party regulars. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 established a parallel campaign organization in Nevada, where Paul loyalists controlled the state party.
In other states, including Maine, whose Ron Paul-pledged delegates staged a walkout at Romney's nominating convention, the intraparty struggles complicate the younger Paul's nomination path.
We decided to take a look at the on-the-ground situation in Iowa, not only because Paul is scheduled to speak at the state party's big May 10 Lincoln Day Dinner fundraiser (an invitation that has raised some hackles), but because the state's caucuses are traditionally the first contest of the presidential election season.
Ron Paul finished a close third in the state's 2012 Republican presidential caucuses with just over 21 percent of the vote, trailing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, at 24.6 percent, and eventual party nominee Mitt Romney, at 24.5 percent.
Joel Kurtinitis, a Ron Paul loyalist who is an organizer of the new Liberty Iowa political action committee, said there is excitement about Rand Paul within the "liberty movement."
He acknowledged what he characterized as the younger Paul's "challenges," and said that he expected Iowa to be the testing ground where the son will see if he can capture his father's supporters, as well as Republicans outside the libertarian embrace.
The liberty movement in Iowa, Kurtinitis says, is largely peopled by "limited government conservatives who are very excited about Rand because he actually has a broader appeal."
He says he views Rand Paul as a candidate who can unite liberty movement and Tea Party Republicans under the banner of limited government.
"He's a good spokesman," Kurtinitis says, "and has a more palatable way of expressing himself."
Rebekah Maxwell, 26, is executive producer of conservative Steve Deace's national syndicated radio show out of West Des Moines, Iowa.
She's among a wide swath of Republicans who were uncomfortable with Ron Paul's noninterventionist foreign policy stance, but sees nuances in the son's stated beliefs.
"If Ron Paul says we shouldn't have gone to capture Osama bin Laden, we shouldn't have defended ourselves against Iranian threats — that promotes emotional and reactionary responses among conservatives," says Maxwell, who calls herself a "conservatarian." She did not caucus for Ron Paul in 2012 and declined to say who she supported.
She sees Rand Paul cultivating a brand that embraces a noninterventionist view similar to his father's, but making a constitutional case for action when warranted in the name of national defense.
"Rand has a bit more balanced view about how things can work in the real world," Maxwell says.
In Polk County, the state's most populous, GOP county co-chair Chad Brown described Rand Paul as a "rising star who communicates a message in a way that is acceptable to different groups of the party."
Brown, part of a slate that last month convincingly beat back efforts by Ron Paul supporters for control of the county party, views the younger Paul as more aligned with mainstream Republican views, particularly in the area of foreign policy.
"Sen. Paul is more of a spokesperson for social conservative and Tea Party factions of the Republican Party," says Brown. "I was uncomfortable with the father on foreign policy, as well as some other issues."
Fading Father Influence?
Ron Paul Republicans not only lost this spring in Polk County, but were also ousted in Story County, the home of Ames and Iowa State University; and in Clay County, in the state's northwest corner.
Incumbents also beat back Ron Paul challengers in other counties, and GOP county leaders have been described as being "in revolt" against the Paul-faithful state party leadership.
"We are in turmoil at the state level," says Jorgensen, the Pottawattamie County chairman. "But it appears that Ron Paul's support in Iowa is trending down, and will continue to do so going into 2014."
To do well in the Hawkeye State, he says, the younger Paul "has to distance himself from his dad's people."
It may not be that easy in a state where Tea Partiers, libertarians, Christian evangelicals, and moderates are all battling for the soul of the Republican Party.
"Conservatives want to get things sorted out pretty soon," says Maxwell, the radio producer. "Nobody wants a replay of 2012."
"Republicans have a real problem on their hands, as everyone knows," she says.
The Republican National Committee has acknowledged that some of those problems stem from state parties like those in Nevada and Iowa hobbled by factionalism. The RNC recently launched an effort to shore up state party organizations to avoid the dysfunction that hurt Romney in 2012.
Whether Rand Paul, with both his dad's baggage and benefits, emerges as the person who can help reconcile party factions may be decided early, and in Iowa.
Correction: April 23, 2013 12:00 am — A previous version of this story said Ron Paul loyalists failed to maintain leadership of the Polk County, Iowa, Republican Party last month; it was their bid to take over the top positions that failed.