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Republicans Stoke 2016 Speculation With Visits to Early Voting States

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Six months after the end of the 2012 presidential election, political activity has already started to percolate in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

For Republicans, especially, it appears the 2016 field will be wide open, and some potential contenders are wasting little time beginning the process of introducing themselves to GOP activists and donors.

“The level of interest is starting to ramp up,” said Juliana Bergeron, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. “Republicans are over being shell-shocked from the 2012 election and are ready to start vetting potential candidates.”

One figure getting an early look is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he is “considering” a run in 2016, but indicated he would not make a decision until next year at the earliest. In recent months the tea party favorite has raised his national profile by leading a Senate filibuster over the Obama administration’s drone policy and followed that up with a victory in the straw poll at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

Paul’s chief of staff, Doug Stafford, said the senator’s focus at the moment is on getting his message out. “Long term he obviously needs to decide if he is going to run,” Stafford told the PBS NewsHour. “But whether he does or not, he wants to be part of the national conversation.”

That means doing events like the ones Paul has scheduled this weekend in Iowa, Stafford said.

The freshman senator will headline the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Dinner in Cedar Rapids on Friday night. The sold-out event will be carried nationally on C-SPAN. More importantly for Paul, perhaps, it presents an opportunity to connect with likely caucus-goers.

Stafford said Paul plans to stick to familiar themes during his trip, addressing topics such as immigration reform, the ongoing fallout from last year’s attacks in Benghazi, the budget deficit and his “overall view for the party” going forward.

Republicans are over being shell-shocked from the 2012 election and are ready to start vetting potential candidates.
— Juliana Bergeron, New Hampshire Republican National Committee

Paul also plans to speak Friday with the Iowa Federation of Republican Women and will attend a Saturday breakfast with Johnson County Republicans in North Liberty.

Deborah Thornton, the chairwoman of the Johnson County GOP, said her members are “very interested” in being being part of the national political debate, which means hearing not only from Paul, but other national conservative leaders. She said Saturday’s breakfast, which is expected to draw between 100 and 120 people, is just the first in a series of events. Thornton named New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz among the officials the group hopes to bring in down the road.

Paul has at least one advantage: the foundation laid by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran for president three times, including last year. Some Republicans believe the younger Paul’s political ceiling is even higher because he has a more practical approach that could resonate with the party’s establishment wing.

“Ron had more of an older profile, but he could still connect with younger folks through his campaign’s use of technology,” said former South Carolina GOP chair Karen Floyd. “But Rand can do both, because he has his father’s message, but it’s tightened up so he has greater reach.”

Stafford said the elder Paul’s still-active network would benefit his son because it means he’s “not starting from zero” should he choose to run. “Their ideas don’t overlap 100 percent, and their supporters don’t overlap 100 percent, but they do for the most part.”

The weekend trip to Iowa is just the first in a series of Paul’s visits to states with early voting contests. Later this month he will address the New Hampshire Republican Party’s first annual Liberty Dinner in Concord. He also is scheduled to attend a fundraising event for the South Carolina Republican Party in late June.

While Paul’s schedule might be busier than most, he is far from the only Republican figure looking to elevate his profile at this early stage.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another potential 2016 contender, will spend Friday night in the Granite State, speaking at a fundraising event for the Republican Senate Majority Committee, the campaign arm for the state Senate GOP.

Jindal’s remarks in Manchester are also scheduled to be covered on C-SPAN as part of the cable channel’s “Road to the White House 2016” programming.

The dueling Paul and Jindal events Friday come a week after Cruz, another rising star in the Republican Party, addressed the South Carolina GOP Silver Elephant banquet. The event was held in honor of former Sen. Jim DeMint, who stepped down last year to lead the Heritage Foundation.

Cruz’s speech stoked speculation that he might be gearing up for a presidential run just four months into his Senate term, but the tea party favorite rejected such talk as “wild speculation.”

The chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, Chad Connelly, said it was too early for people in the state to begin making “assessments” about Cruz or any of the other possible candidates. But, he indicated Cruz made a positive first impression.

“I think he was very well received. His comments were spot on. Red meat for the crowd,” Connelly said. “We had a lot of people who got to hang out with him a little bit, in a little more personal setting, and they liked him a lot. So, I heard nothing but great things, that’s for sure.”

Connelly, who traveled with Paul to Israel last year, said South Carolina Republicans are interested in being part of a broader discussion taking place within the party about how it moves forward in the aftermath of two consecutive presidential defeats.

“From an activist’s standpoint, they just want to meet people that may be in the mix. But more importantly, I think that they really just want to be around people who are having a conversation about what do we do to win nationally,” Connelly said. “So I don’t think it was anything bigger than that, whether it was Senator Cruz from last weekend or Senator Paul coming in. They’re just testing waters, getting to know people, making the rounds.”

A sampling of other political veterans from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina agree that despite the early buzz, talk of 2016 is premature. At the same time, they acknowledge that early appearances by potential candidates do serve a purpose.

“We’re not at anywhere close to a full boil yet,” said Matt Strawn, former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “But take a visit like Senator Paul’s this week. It’s not just the large appearance on stage at the spring dinner but it’s quiet meetings either before or afterwards with those key activists who know how to organize their counties or their precincts.”

Veteran GOP consultant Rich Killion, a managing partner with Elevare Communications in Concord, N.H., said there are few drawbacks for someone to lay down an early marker by helping raise money for local and state officials.

“It’s a great opportunity for national figures to come into the state and do a little bit well for themselves by doing a lot well for others,” Killion said. “These state and local parties turn to national leaders as an opportunity to help keynote an event that can help raise critical resources for the local or state endeavors. And the leaders themselves certainly are not hurt one bit by being able to come in and build relationships.”

South Carolina’s Floyd, meanwhile, said much of the focus at the moment is on “laying the foundational structure for the party,” which includes working on its message, identifying new messengers and reaching out to certain demographic groups.

“These fellows are just beginning to develop their teams,” Floyd said. “It’s a little early at this point. I expect you’ll start to see things pick up this fall.”

Kim Lehman, a former Republican National Committee member from Iowa, said that candidates weighing potential bids must strike a “delicate balance” when it comes to the timing, noting there are risks in waiting too long to get started hiring staff members, for one.

“There are only so many worker bees,” Lehman said. “That’s where early matters. If you’re coming in after all the good people are snatched up, forget it.”

And, of course, some candidates of elections past can re-activate their own staff and volunteer networks. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, recently canceled a trip to the state due to illness, but has said he plans to visit in August for the state fair.

When it comes to the early voting states, politics never really stops. That means there is not much time off for those “worker bees.”

“The average New Hampshire primary voter does not have the appetite at this stage in the game to even begin thinking about, never mind focusing upon, a 2016 contest,” Killion said. “The activists though, for either party, always have their eye towards people within their party who really speak towards what they feel and will fight for what they believe in. So the activists network, if you will, is always ripe for interest, even at this early stage.”

Strawn contends that it is “way too early to start choosing teams” for most Republican Party activists. “Now, that’s not to say they’re not paying attention and kicking the tires, but I don’t get the sense after a lengthy competitive caucus season and what we just went through in 2012 as one of the handful of ground zero battleground targeted states that folks are ready for another knock-down, drag-out intraparty fight right away.”

If history is any guide, there will be plenty of time for that later.

For more political news, visit the NewsHour’s politics page.

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