The long and short of all of this is that Paul is stuck, afraid of alienating core GOP voters while trying to woo independents he might never get the chance to face. Or put another way: When he tries to lure the independents who are disgusted by the comments of Bundy or Trump, he risks losing Republican primary voters who see truth in both. The result is milquetoast responses to the issues of the day that leave "the most interesting man in politics" not really all that interesting.
About a month ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced a new stunt: the senator would, in his official capacity, sue the Internal Revenue Service. As p.r. gambits go, it seemed pretty silly, but this is exactly the sort of maneuver Paul has repeatedly exploited for attention and fundraising.
Show of hands: how many of you heard about this anti-IRS lawsuit last month? Chances are, most of you didn't -- Paul has made a splash with various press stunts in recent years, but this one was largely ignored. The Republican presidential candidate has a shtick and for some, it's getting a little stale.
Of course, it's not just the ineffective schemes; Paul's support has also faded recently in national Republican polling -- he'll have no trouble qualifying for GOP debates, but at least for now, few see him as a top-tier contender. As the bulk of the political world's attention turns to other candidates, I've heard jokes about Rand Paul maintaining such a low profile that he's presumably entered the witness protection program.
The Lexington Herald-Leader's Sam Youngman explained the other day that the "reality of presidential politics is seeping in, and the limitations of what was always a long-shot strategy are coming into focus."
Anthony Terrell and Mark Murray reported for msnbc last week that as far as Team Paul is concerned, there's a deliberate strategy unfolding: the campaign is playing "the long delegate game," avoiding "sharing the crowded space with other Republican presidential candidates."
Look, I like tortoise-hare analogies as much as the next guy, but some basic truths are unavoidable: at this stage in the race, Paul's support in the polls is underwhelming; his fundraising is unimpressive; his endorsement total is anemic; and his ability to generate attention isn't working. Against this backdrop, the senator's aides can say everything is going according to plan, but it's a little hard to believe.
In case it's not obvious, there's plenty of time for any candidate, including Paul, to make significant gains between now and the early nominating contests. To simply assume the Kentucky Republican is finished is a mistake -- it's only July.
But Sam Youngman's piece touched on an important point: "On issues such as gay marriage, the Confederate flag and the mind-blowing candidacy of Donald Trump, Paul is favoring caution over daring, seemingly all too aware that what he says to win independents could cost him with Republican primary voters."
As any political reporter can tell you, candidates and campaign operations are often eager to share quotes with major news organizations on the biggest issues of the day. In recent months, however, Rand Paul 2016 has been, well, kind of shy, ducking some important fights and slowly crafting a guarded message after the other national candidates have already had their say.
The pattern serves as a reminder that Paul is in an unusual position, trying to appeal to Republican primary voters while reaching out to independents and retaining his own core followers, all the while both embracing and rejecting GOP orthodoxy.
Paul isn't done -- he's apparently promising to derail infrastructure spending unless the bill targets Planned Parenthood, which may help generate some headlines -- but his national operation isn't moving in the right direction.