Could Rand Paul be the 2016 GOP presidential nominee?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 14, 2013.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Twice, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference - in 2010 and 2011.

Both times, Paul's victory was dismissed by most Republican political pros as a fluke - a product of the unique cross-section of the conservative movement represented at CPAC. Paul had his supporters, they conceded, but he was ultimately a gadfly. He could not win the GOP presidential nomination, and if he somehow accomplished that impossible task, he most certainly could not win the presidency.

And both times, those political pros were right: Ron Paul's straw poll victories evinced a passionate core of disciples who were never able to turn him into a viable presidential candidate.

But after Ron Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won this year's CPAC straw poll on Saturday, some in the GOP are wondering whether the younger Paul is shaping up to be a far more formidable force in the party than his father ever was.

And that question quickly gives rise to another: Could Rand Paul actually be the 2016 Republican presidential nominee?

The answer, according to a handful of GOP strategists, is maybe. But it's probably too early to tell, and it will depend greatly on the direction taken by the GOP - and Paul - over the next several years, they say.

"I think he has a ways to go before he would be considered a viable candidate," said veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "He's already impressing conservative voters," but "it's a long way to go."

"Does he have potential? Of course," added Bonjean.

"I think he represents a paradigm shift," said an adviser to both Pauls who declined to be named so he could discuss a Rand Paul bid more candidly. "He's the first candidate to represent a new political philosophy since Ronald Reagan was the ideological champion of conservatives."

According to the adviser, Paul is already laying the groundwork for a potential bid - his team has "already had two meetings" about 2016, and Paul's recent trip to Israel is further evidence of his aspiration. "You don't go to Israel like he did," the adviser said, "unless you're already exploring some of that territory."

And at this early stage, the adviser said, Rand Paul is already more viable than his father ever was.

The younger Paul, unlike his father, is a statewide official - elected in 2010 to Kentucky's open Senate seat after routing the handpicked primary candidate of the powerful dean of the state GOP, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Ron Paul, by contrast, represented a deeply conservative House district in Texas, rarely facing a competitive election and freed by supportive constituents to sit out on whichever political limb he saw fit.

As a result of his larger platform, Rand Paul has had to be more politically adroit than his dad was. On foreign policy, in particular, the younger Paul has carved out a distinct voice for himself. He recently declared at a speech at the Heritage Foundation that he is neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, but a "realist," distancing himself from both the isolationism that handicapped his father and the aggressive interventionism of Bush-era Republicans.