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The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin recently found herself excited by what Rand Paul had to say to Sean Hannity.

Asked if he was running for president, the senator from Kentucky put himself down as a definite maybe. “If the ideas are resonating — if the ideas look like they have a chance – then it’s much more likely that I’ll make a go of this,” Paul replied. “If it looks like we’re at 1 percent, we’re not in the top tier, and it’s just going to be a quixotic sort of run, then I think it’s not something I want to do just for educational purposes.”

To borrow the old Hillary Clinton line, Paul would be in it to win it.

Rubin noted that this “sounded more equivocal” than Paul had been in over a year when asked about his presidential ambitions, leading her to title her post,”Is Rand Paul going to run?”

Stray comments to Hannity aside, both Paul’s hiring practices and travel schedule suggest all systems are go.

But the Hannity interview still raises an interesting question: how successful does a Rand Paul presidential campaign have to be to be a useful exercise?

Certainly, both the political class and a large portion of the American electorate need educating on the subject of constitutionally limited government. What could be more educational than the election of president committed to Paul’s brand of conservatism?”
Winning isn’t everything,” goes the quote frequently attributed to Vince Lombardi. “It’s the only thing.”

Yet an educational presidential campaign can do some good. Rand’s father injected libertarian and constitutionalist ideas into the mainstream political debate by seeking the Republican presidential nomination twice, even though the prize eluded him both times. His GOP campaigns did more bring his arguments to the nightly news and even Capitol Hill than winning the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1988.

Unsuccessful campaigns can also be movement-building exercises. That was certainly the case for Barry Goldwater on the right and George McGovern on the left. They were trounced in the general election but they transformed their respective political parties in the process.

Sometimes you don’t even have to make it through the primaries. Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid expanded the Christian right’s influence and organization, even though he never really got close to the nomination. Jesse Jackson increased African-American participation that same year. Howard Dean’s failed 2004 campaign helped set the stage for Barack Obama’s victory four years later.

And of course, Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns built the liberty movement. And that’s where things get tricky in 2016.

The liberty movement could benefit from a Rand Paul presidential run in 2016. Such a campaign would keep activists mobilized and engaged. It would identify new supporters. It would build fundraising and mailing lists for liberty Republican organizations.

There’s really no alternative candidate who’s ready to do it. Justin Amash is still in his 30s. Gary Johnson has left the Republican Party and has movement-shrinking tendencies. Anybody else on the horizon is lesser known. A 2016 campaign may still be needed to grow the talent pool.

Let’s not forget the influence a losing campaign can have over the eventual nominee. Michael Dukakis wanted to keep Jesse Jackson’s voters happily in the Democratic tent. George H.W. Bush knew he needed Robertson’s supporters.

The bigger the Paul vote is, the more likely a Republican candidate not named Paul will covet it. This is especially true since there was a large presidential vote for the Libertarian Party in 2012. There are a few GOP candidates whose foreign-policy views are largely unformed, with Scott Walker and John Kasich being two of the best examples. Mitt Romney is a known panderer not bound by past positions who got along well socially with Ron Paul.

It’s also necessary to diversify the set of foreign-policy advisers available to future Republican presidents. Even if a Walker or Kasich gets elected, the qualified professionals they’ll have to choose from when gaining national-security counsel will be almost uniformly hawkish.  A Rand campaign can bring more realists and libertarians into party circles.

But only if Paul is not a House backbencher. He is a senator who would like to maintain his influence in that chamber for as long as he serves. While you can survive what he describes as a “quixotic” presidential campaign — look at Joe Biden, who became vice president after an unimpressive 2008 bid for the White House, or Orrin Hatch, who was an asterisk candidate in 2000 — all other things being equal, it doesn’t help on that score.

Paul must also contend with Kentucky election laws that are not conducive to running simultaneously for reelection to the Senate (he’s up in 2016) and for president. There are possible work-arounds, but the cleanest solution is being held up by a Democratic-controlled state legislative chamber.

The senator will have to think carefully about how best to have the debates certain columnists and bloggers hope the Republican Party can avoid if he doesn’t run.

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