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For good or ill, Paul is frontrunner

By JOHN DAVID DYCHE

The opening of the 1960s radio comedy Chickenman featured voices shouting, "He's everywhere! He's everywhere!" The same can be said about Kentucky's junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

Nationally, the front page of last Sunday's New York Times had a Paul story. He was the featured guest on Meet the Press that same day. Locally, James R. Carroll penned a big Sunday Courier-Journal piece chronicling Paul's popularity.

Paul even gave his own response to President Obama's State of the Union speech. Not a Republican response. Not a tea party response. Just Rand Paul's response.

Two things are now clear. First, although he plays coy, and maybe he will stop at some point, but as of now Paul is clearly running for president. Second, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mired in controversy, if not scandal, Paul is the Republican frontrunner.

So says Peter Beinart, one of the best liberal pundits, in The Atlantic. Beinart argues that Ron Paul's support network gives his son Rand an edge in the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests. He also contends the GOP is moving in Paul's direction on issues "from NSA surveillance to drug legalization to gay marriage."

Paul rightly says that the "frontrunner" tag "sounds unlucky." The curly-haired Kentuckian (has America ever had such a coiffed commander in chief?) would have preferred stalking another frontrunner from just off the pace, but Christie's stumble put Paul in the lead.

He has no choice now but to run with it. Paul could try rating his horse until the quarter pole, but events often dictate strategy. He may see a chance of running away from the field and stealing the nomination.

The Republican National Committee's recent move to shorten its 2016 presidential nominating process could help him. Still, between now and then the Republican campaign will present Paul with more obstacles than a steeplechase.

For starters, he will have to overcome a hurdle in Kentucky law that could prevent him from running for reelection as senator at the same time as he seeks the presidency. The General Assembly could change that statute, but the price of Democratic cooperation is probably too high for Republicans to pay. Paul, or someone on his behalf, could challenge the law in court on the grounds that it imposes an unconstitutional extra qualification for a federal office.

At the end of the day Paul probably forsakes the Senate and goes all-in for the White House. If so, and he loses the 2016 nomination, he can always find a cable television perch from which to make a lot of money and stay in the public eye for another try in 2020.

Paul has also been prone to gaffes, accused of plagiarism, and beset by associates and staffers who espouse politically incorrect fringe opinions. David Gregory baited him into controversial comments about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on Meet the Press. So far Paul has survived such tempests, but as the media feeding frenzy now devouring Christie shows, a frontrunner faces ferocious scrutiny.

Another barrier Paul will have to clear is the Republican establishment's opposition to his libertarian, neo-isolationist foreign policy and national security positions. A harsh editorial in The Wall Street Journal, the oracle of regular Republicanism, criticized Paul's position on leaker Edward Snowden as showing "unseriousness about national security that would make him unsuitable to be Commander in Chief." Strong stuff.

Meanwhile, there is also the issue of how Paul wields his increasing political clout. His endorsement of Mitch McConnell for reelection may be the most important factor in this year's U.S. Senate race in Kentucky.

McConnell would be in real trouble if Paul was backing tea party challenger Matt Bevin in the GOP primary, or had opted to remain neutral. After a bitter battle with Bevin, McConnell will need Paul to help him woo liberty movement and tea party types necessary to victory in November. Paul can also win friends and influence people by campaigning and fundraising for Republican candidates around the country this year.

The power is Paul's, but so is the pressure. Even if he avoids making a major mistake, he must still guard against overexposure. Being everywhere all the time is not always a good thing.

Chickenman was billed as "the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known." If Paul can hold his lead, avoid the myriad hazards, and capture the Republican presidential nomination, he may be the most fantastic politician Kentucky has ever known.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.

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