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Rand Paul campaign insists it's not folding tent

This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics.

Rand Paul raised just $2.5 million for his presidential bid over the last three months--a sum that not only pales in comparison to the high double-digit hauls of his rivals, but amounts to roughly a third of what he brought in the previous quarter.

The Kentucky libertarian has slipped so far in the polls--the RCP average shows him at 2.3 percent--that he may not qualify for the prime-time debate stage later this month.

Who is presidential candidate Rand Paul? 01:07

Paul has also recently been raising money for his U.S. Senate re-election, raising questions about his commitment to the presidential contest. Paul pushed the Kentucky GOP to host a caucus instead of a primary, which would allow him to run for both offices--and he footed the $250,000 bill.

Altogether, this paints a picture of a campaign on life support.

But the campaign doesn't see it that way and instead points to signs of life: in the two weeks after the second Republican debate, it raised $750,000. The campaign insists there will be no shakeups or changes in strategy, that Paul will continue his campaign schedule in the early states and regions off the beaten track, and that it has enough resources to carry the candidate through at least the first four primaries. This week, the campaign rolled out a list of caucus state endorsements.

Spokesman Sergio Gor said the campaign has added new staff over the past week.

"Our campaign is in for the long haul and Senator Paul's message of limited government and individual liberty will continue to resonate with primary voters," Gor said in a statement.

"Most Interesting Man in Politics"

Still, the numbers are startling for a candidate who, at this time last year, had been dubbed the "most interesting man in politics." Paul's libertarian leanings, especially his audience-commanding efforts in the Senate on drone strikes and NSA snooping, his calls for criminal justice reform and support for legalizing marijuana, and his ability to expand the conservative message to new groups and communities were all supposed to set him apart from the crowded field.

Instead, the GOP returned to its hawkish roots on foreign policy as situations escalated abroad, and Paul found himself in a challenging position. He wanted from the outset to expand the coalition of loyal libertarians his father had built through his own presidential campaigns, but he also hoped to win over a faction of the mainstream. He irked libertarians by proposing an increase in the defense budget, joining Sen. Tom Cotton and others in trying to trip up the Iran negotiations, and ultimately opposed the nuclear deal. And on the campaign trail, he didn't always appear to be all that interested or interesting.

Paul was the second candidate to announce his presidential campaign, and did so with the message: "Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream." But Paul had also worked to alter Kentucky state laws to allow him to run for his Senate seat and the presidency at the same time, which not only raised questions about his intentions but also seemed antithetical to his anti-establishment campaign.

The rise of real political outsiders, Donald Trump in particular, undercut Paul's credentials. And Paul's efforts to swat down Trump, especially in the first debate, proved futile and appeared desperate.

Paul became a favorite punching bag for Trump. On the main debate stage last month, Trump asked why Paul was even participating. This week, he tried to stoke the fires and take credit for Paul's demise, tweeting: "Prediction: Rand Paul has been driven out of the race by my statements about him-- he will announce soon. 1%!"

Full interview: Rand Paul, September 20 08:47

Paul responded by saying he would be sticking around the presidential race just as long as Trump, if not longer, and called the real estate mogul "a clown."

"Ultimately we're going to get to the truth, we're going to get to substance--it takes a while," Paul told CNN earlier this week. "But by no means am I finished: I'm just getting started."

But Trump isn't the only one undermining Paul's campaign. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has also sought to appeal to some of the libertarian contingent and has maintained his standing in the polls. The tension between the two has thickened.

This week, the Cruz campaign rolled out a video highlighting eight supporters of his campaign who had previously backed Ron Paul. The video also noted that Rand Paul, along with Ron, had endorsed Cruz during his Senate campaign.

Paul said Cruz was "done for" in the Senate Tuesday after Cruz failed to garner enough support to amend a government-funding bill. "Ted has chosen to make this really personal and chosen to call people dishonest in leadership and call them names, which really goes against the decorum and also against the rules of the Senate, and as a consequence, he can't get anything done legislatively," Paul told Fox News Radio.

The criticism, however, was a bit peculiar, as decorum and Senate rules are rarely priorities for anti-establishment voters. Cruz picked up on that in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, reminding listeners that Paul endorsed Mitch McConnell in his re-election bid and that the now-Senate majority leader returned the favor.

Fundraising Takes a Dive

Paul will have even more competition. The close of the fiscal quarter this week serves as a window into the financial health and habits of campaigns. Cruz has not released his numbers yet. So far, Ben Carson has wowed the field by raising $20 million in the last quarter, and his campaign says most of the contributions come from small donors.

In the previous quarter, Paul raised over $7 million and had $4 million in cash at the end of June. This time, he raised $2.5 million and has $2 million cash on hand.

Ron Paul raised nearly $35 million during his presidential run four years ago. In his 2007 run, the elder Paul raised $6 million in a 24-hour period through an aggressive online "money bomb" pitch.

What's more, Rand Paul can't rely on two of his three super PACs to propel his stalling campaign. One group said this week it halted its fundraising efforts for a "futile" campaign, though it had spent little so far this cycle.

Rand Paul's plan to "mix it up" at Cleveland GOP debate 05:26

The leaders of another group backing Paul, America's Liberty PAC, are under indictment on campaign finance charges stemming from their previous work on Ron Paul's presidential campaign.

Another PAC, Concerned American Voters, which is focused on organizational efforts in the early states, says it's still raising money. "Donors who have given to us were generally pretty energized by the performance in last debate," says the PAC's senior adviser, Matt Kibbe, who noted that Trump has taken up a lot of the oxygen but that there is still time for Paul to turn things around. He pointed to criminal justice reform as one of Paul's initiatives likely to gain steam.

"What I'm hearing from investors and activists is they want to hear more of what they heard in the last debate," Kibbe says. "They want to hear those libertarian values to distinguish Rand."

It's unclear, however, whether Paul will make the big stage for the third debate in Colorado on Oct. 28. Host CNBC said candidates must average 3 percent in national polls Sept. 17 to Oct. 21. A standing of 2.5 percent would be rounded up. But right now, at least in the RCP average, Paul stands at 2.3 percent.

In other words, Paul's fate as a presidential candidate may just come down to rounding. And he could rebound. Still, some argue, there's a Senate race in Kentucky may that may look to be more and more inviting.

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