Two years ago, on a balmy August morning in Ames, Iowa, I was in the lobby of a small hotel, surrounded by twentysomething libertarians. They were waiting patiently to get a picture with Ron Paul, then a Texas congressman and their pick to be the next president. Finally, they spotted him around the corner near the elevators, huddling with Jesse Benton, his campaign manager. They went over and asked him for a picture. Paul obliged, but he didn’t seem too happy about being bothered. He flashed a half-smile, patted a young man on his back, and then scooted away.
A few minutes later, Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky showed up, arriving in a blue campaign bus with his wife, Kelley. He strode into the lobby and immediately began to grab hands and shoulders. He laughed, made small talk, and posed for picture after picture. While his father was upstairs, getting ready for town-hall meetings and television interviews, Rand was an ambassador to the campaign’s rank-and-file supporters. Watching the scene, you couldn’t help but think that, for Senator Paul, it was a practice run.
This week, as Rand Paul takes his first steps toward a presidential campaign, all of that practice may begin to pay off. He is set to speak in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, where he’ll headline the state party’s Lincoln dinner. According to officials, the event is already sold out. But the interest in his visit, even at this early stage, is unsurprising. Iowans, who have long been obsessed with presidential politics, are already curious about how Paul is framing his message, years ahead of the 2016 caucuses. They want to see whether Paul can use that charisma, and his newfound celebrity, to bridge the Iowa GOP’s factions in a way that his father did not.
Building a strong, viable Iowa network, with ties to the party apparatus, may be easier for Rand Paul than it was for his father. Instead of being an outside contender, he can cast himself, right from the start, as a man of both the grassroots and the establishment. In Iowa, the Ron Paul movement is now running the show. A. J. Spiker, the state GOP chairman, is a former Ron Paul volunteer, and was instrumental in extending the coveted Lincoln dinner invite to the senator. “I’ve known Rand for a few years,” Spiker says. “He toured the state with his dad ahead of the caucuses. People really like him, they like his constitutional conservatism, and we’re expecting more than 500 people, plus 40 media outlets, to show up.”
With Spiker at the helm, Paul knows that the state GOP isn’t working against him. That institutional support matters in Iowa, where politics is all about relationships, trust, and coalitions. A year ago, Ron Paul finished third in the caucuses after pouring considerable resources and time into the state — a major disappointment. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Paul never had the early, unofficial blessing that his son is being given. Social conservatives and business leaders were firmly in other camps, and national publications barely covered the congressman’s early trips to Sioux City and Waterloo. These days, Iowa’s Republican grandees may not be working for the younger Paul, but they’ve cheered his ascent.