For all of its rich political history, Kentucky has not been what you would call a hotbed for presidential candidates - at least not for the last 150 years.
In the nation's early decades, three Kentuckians made the run. Henry Clay was unsuccessful three times (1824, 1832 and 1844). Vice President John Breckinridge lost in 1860 to an Illinoisan with Kentucky roots named Abe Lincoln. Zachary Taylor, who grew up near Louisville, was elected president in 1848, though his term was cut short by a stomach ailment that took his life in 1850.
So it's been a long stretch since the commonwealth had a candidate on the presidential ballot, and Rand Paul could change that. Over the past two years, his chance of being a serious contender in 2016 has evolved from a distant possibility to a reasonable shot to what now looks like a near certainty.
While the Republican race appears wide open, recent polls have put the Kentucky senator at the top of the list of potential nominees. CNN's poll last month of Republicans and independents who lean that way had him tied with Jeb Bush with 13 percent. One point back was Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll also found Paul and Bush tied at the top with 14 percent, slightly ahead of Huckabee, Ryan and Christie.
Media attention in recent weeks has focused on Paul's foreign policy views, and he's taken hits from both the left and right for what critics call his isolationist (a label Paul rejects as overstated) outlook.
But he's gotten some good press, too, most notably a piece by the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza headlined, "What if Rand Paul is right about foreign policy?"
"A new poll suggests that dismissing Paul's push to rethink when, where and how the United States involves itself in foreign entanglements is a mistake - and is missing a broader change in how Americans view our role in the world," Cillizza wrote.
"That the percentage of people who want the U.S. to be 'less active' in world affairs has quadrupled over the last 13 years is absolutely remarkable....it seems quite clear that dismissing Paul's views on foreign policy as too outside either the GOP mainstream or the broader electorate's thinking is a major mistake."
Paul was in town last week to do some free eye surgery with Dr. Barbara Bowers and stopped by the office. He talked mostly about Kentucky issues and relatively little about his presidential ambition, saying he doesn't expect to make an announcement before early 2015.
When I brought up the subject of Kentucky's past presidential candidates, he made a couple of points about Clay, who came to be known as "The Great Compromiser" because of his widely admired negotiating skills.
Paul praised Clay's role as a U.S. senator in helping enact the Compromise of 1850, which eased tensions between the North and South and delayed the Civil War for a decade. When the act failed to get enough votes as an omnibus bill, Clay vowed to separate its major provisions and vote on each separately, which proved successful.
A similar approach might work for contentious contemporary issues such as immigration reform, Paul said.
He added, however, there were times when Clay should have been less inclined to take a middle path, such as in the 1844 presidential election.
Clay lost narrowly to James Polk largely because he was perceived to be waffling on the question of slavery.
"There are issues where compromise should be reached, but there are certain things you shouldn't be willing to compromise on," he said. "Owning humans is one of those."
Paul also takes exception to Clay's taste for dueling.
Clay had two prominent duels and was the challenger each time. The first took place in 1809 against fellow Kentucky legislator Humphrey Marshall after the two men exchanged insults in the Kentucky General Assembly. Each was grazed by a bullet but not seriously hurt.
The second came in 1826 with Sen. John Randolph of Virginia, a known hothead. In a speech on the Senate floor, he accused Clay, who was then secretary of state, of "crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards." In that duel, one bullet perforated Clay's coat, but neither man was injured.
When I asked Paul about his interest in duels, he laughed and said he didn't see any in his future. "I want to remain eligible for office in Kentucky," he said.
He was referring to a section added to Kentucky's Constitution in 1891 that to this day requires every elected and appointed official to swear they have never fought in or been a second (an assistant) in a duel.
I'm glad that provision's in there. I expect Paul could get the best of Hillary Clinton, but I'd rather see it happen in a debate.
Steve Wilson is executive editor of the Paducah Sun. You can reach him at
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