About two years ago, the best-case scenario for Rand Paul's not-yet-declared 2016 presidential bid looked something like this: Paul would successfully blend his father Ron Paul's die-hard libertarian supporters with elements of the GOP's old guard, building a new voter coalition to emerge as a real contender and ultimately seize the White House.
"I think he represents a paradigm shift," a Paul adviser told CBS News in 2013 when the senator first began to emerge on the national stage. "He's the first candidate to represent a new political philosophy since Ronald Reagan was the ideological champion of conservatives."
The quote, and others like it, revealed the almost-epochal ambitions of Paul's team: they didn't just think he had a strong chance to be the GOP nominee; they believed he could fundamentally transform American politics in the process.
Thus far, it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Buffeted by sagging poll numbers, lackluster fundraising, and troublesome campaign headlines, Paul looks less like a transformational figure and more like your run-of-the-mill GOP presidential contender, struggling to find his voice amid the most crowded primary field in modern history.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of Paul's trouble is his standing in early state and national polls, which has declined markedly over the last several months.
A Suffolk University poll of Republican voters in Iowa released Tuesday found Paul languishing in tenth place at 2.2 percent support. A Boston Herald poll of New Hampshire voters released Tuesday found him in sixth place at six percent. And a national poll released last week by CBS News found Paul at four percent, trailing six other candidates.
Paul's team believes he jolted his campaign with a combative performance at Thursday's GOP primary debate, when he took on Donald Trump and, notably, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the subject of government surveillance programs.
"In the debate we helped strengthen ourselves with our liberty base, which we needed to do," Paul adviser Douglas Wead told CBS News. "That won't show up in polls because the numbers will only shift, but it was a very important shift for us. These are hard core folks we need as a base."
The exchange with Christie, though, revealed one way in which the political landscape has shifted to Paul's detriment over the last two years. Christie and Paul were arguing over the government's surveillance programs, with Paul stressing the need to protect privacy and Christie emphasizing the need to safeguard the homeland from terrorist attacks.
Paul elevated his profile and earned plaudits from the GOP base when the controversy over government surveillance dominated the news cycle in 2013, after a former government contractor leaked several far-reaching government data-collection programs. Since then, however, the rise of Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria over the last year and a half has empowered the GOP's hawks, creating more space for a security-focused narrative to thrive.
Paul has also struggled to raise as much money as his competitors. Between April and June this year, Paul's campaign and some friendly outside groups raised a combined $13.9 million dollars. But combined fundraising in support of Jeb Bush reached roughly $120 million during the same period, and some of Paul's other rivals, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also raised considerably more than the Kentucky Republican.
On top of fundraising and polling woes, Paul's campaign has been beset by some unflattering headlines in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Politico reported that Kentucky Republicans are airing reservations about Paul's push to put his name on both the presidential and senatorial ballot in Kentucky in 2016, raising the possibility that he may not be able to run for the White House and seek reelection to the Senate at the same time. A final decision in the matter is expected on Aug. 22, when the state's GOP central committee is slated to vote.
And last week, three aides to Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign were indicted and charged with conspiring to buy the support of an influential Iowa Republican ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Rand Paul's team emphasized in a statement, "These actions are from 2012 and have nothing to do with our campaign." But one of the aides indicted, Jesse Benton, heads an outside super PAC that's supporting Rand Paul's 2016 bid, which could complicate Paul's efforts to distance himself from the matter.
Paul's bid hasn't been entirely without its bright spots in recent weeks: He was tapped by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to lead the GOP's effort to defund Planned Parenthood last month - a high profile gig that could earn him some timely gratitude from the conservative base.
And his energetic performance at Thursday's debate offers at least the possibility that Paul may be able to brawl his way back into contention as the campaign progresses, sharpening those aspects of his political persona that made him an intriguing figure to begin with.
"I like where we are," said Wead, Paul's adviser. "It's kind of like the Indy 500: you don't want to use up all your fuel just to be in first place for the early laps. Gingrich did that last time and he became the target. He was miles ahead of everybody. We are back in the pack, within stinking distance."
Wead suggested the media might have trouble assessing how strong each campaign's infrastructure truly is, given the Iowa Republican Party's decision this year to ditch the Ames straw poll.
"The test, of course, will be in Iowa and New Hampshire," he said. "And you folk will have no Ames - six months out - to allow you to measure ground game and organization. So it will be a bit different - blind, exciting, as we approach the winter."
Still, there's no denying Paul's campaign has taken some hits just as some of his competitors are gathering steam. In a Politico piece last month, a dozen sources close to the campaign described the infighting and backbiting that has begun to seep into Paul's headquarters as his bid takes on water.
"It's such a negative environment," one Paul aide told Politico. "Everyone is on edge, and no one is having any fun. They need to recapture some of their positive mojo, and fast."