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Will Ron Paul be a problem for Rand Paul in 2016?

If Rand Paul wants to be taken seriously as a presidential contender, he'll need to shed his father's extreme Libertarian reputation. But can he?
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Md.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Md.

Can Rand Paul overcome Ron Paul's reputation in time for a presidential run?

The junior Republican senator from Kentucky and the third of Ron Paul's five children clearly plans to run for president in 2016. He is working on a new book that he has said will be published early next year, around the same time he has also said he will declare whether he will pursue his party's nomination. When asked about the seemingly strategic synchronization, Rand Paul told Louisville, Kentucky'sThe Courier-Journal it was "... probably just coincidence, yeah." But the Journal's James R. Carroll noted Paul was “chuckling” when he said that.

Meanwhile, Paul just wrapped up a three-day trip through Iowa, the country's first caucus state. Paul's swing through the Hawkeye state included stops in eight towns and cities, plus appearances at multiple fundraisers for congressional candidates.

Suffice it to say, putting money down on Rand Paul running in 2016 seems like a pretty safe bet. Also a safe bet? That if he runs, every single aspect of his political and personal life will be picked over in what MSNBC's senior political analyst David Axelrod has called an “MRI for the soul.” In Paul's case, that "MRI" will most certainly include scrutiny of his father -- the three-time Republican presidential candidate and longtime Texan who is well known for his Libertarian politics.

But to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, a person needs mass appeal, not extreme ideology. So, the question remains, can Rand Paul sufficiently distance himself from his father's more controversial positions for a real shot at the White House?

Related: Rand Paul’s pitch to the middle in 2016

It certainly won't be easy. 

Now retired from elected office, the elder Paul is still actively using social media to discuss politics and float conspiracy theories. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, Ron Paul took to his website to call for caution in accusing Russia of any involvement in the plane's downing, claiming that Western politicians and the press had “joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster.”

He also claimed that President Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power had blamed Russia and Putin for the incident. But neither Power nor Obama had blamed Putin or Russia when Paul wrote that. Rather, Power had said the plane was “likely downed” by pro-Russian separatists and that the U.S. was unable to “rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel.” And Obama's remarks at that time struck a similar tone. In the wake of the disaster, Obama stressed the importance of “putting forward the facts” and “mak[ing] sure that the truth is out.”

"[Ron] Paul clearly hasn't been following the evidence implicating the separatists and Russia."'

Paul eventually conceded that Russia may have been involved -- but his doubts ignored what was, even at that time, a pile of mounting evidence linking Moscow to MH17. And now Ron Paul has doubled down on those doubts. In a piece published Sunday, Paul criticized the latest round of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia, and reiterated that a Russian link to the downing of MH17 remains unproven.

“[Ron] Paul clearly hasn't been following the evidence implicating the separatists and Russia -- he's approaching this from a strictly isolationist ideological standpoint,” Michael Weiss, editor in chief of The Interpreter, told msnbc. Weiss added that the elder Paul is taking “Russian disinformation as true while casting doubt on ‘the mainstream media.’”

But Ron Paul’s skepticism about Russian involvement in Ukraine is far from the only controversial view he espouses.

In his 2011 book "Liberty Defined," Paul wrote that the notion that everyone has a right to medical care “is an intellectual error;” in 2003, he asserted that the separation of church and state has “no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers;” he once told FOX News that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all “technically” unconstitutional; and in 2007, Paul told NBC News's Tim Russert that Abraham Lincoln could have avoided the Civil War by simply buying and releasing all of the slaves in the Southern states.

In a 2012 Republican debate, Paul claimed that in the 1960s “there was nobody on the street suffering with no medical care.” He's also long said he wants the Federal Reserve, the CIA, and the federal income tax all abolished.

And then there are the now-infamous Ron Paul-published newsletters that were released for years starting in the late 1970s. They included contributor-written letters expressing racism, homophobia, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. In 1990, one issue stated that homosexuals “were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities.“ In 1992 came the claim that the Los Angeles riots only ended “when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.” Another newsletter raised the specter of “the coming race war” and the “federal-homosexual cover-up on AIDS.”

When asked about the newsletters in December 2011, Ron Paul told CNN, “I didn't write them, I didn’t read them at the time, and I disavow them,” before walking out of that interview. But according to The Huffington Post, Ron Paul claimed authorship of at least some of the more controversial statements in those newsletters as late as 1996.

Related: Watch Rachel Maddow's 2010 interview with Rand Paul

Rand Paul, for his part, has been distancing himself rather strategically from his father. As reported byThe Washington Postthe senator removed one of his father’s books from his Senate website’s “Student Reading List,” and he also told The Daily Caller earlier this year that he’s “pretty much quit answering” questions about his father’s beliefs. 

Still, some political observers see a strong connection between the political views of the Pauls. But how much will voters link them to one another? And how will that affect the younger Paul's chances in 2016?

"It’s definitely true that Ron Paul supporters have a strong interest in a potential Rand Paul candidacy, but what has struck me is the large number of people who like Rand Paul who were not supporters of his father."'

There is a politically sound reason for the younger Paul not to distance himself too much from dad. During his years as a perennial presidential contender, Ron Paul developed a fervent following with web-savvy and financially lucrative backers who can most often be found where the extreme political left and the extreme political right meet. If Rand Paul could find a way to couple the support of his father's devotees with the backing of enough traditional Republican primary voters in 2016, his potential path to the GOP nomination becomes clearer.

It would be quite a tightrope walk.

When asked if Ron Paul’s controversial record could affect Rand Paul’s chances in 2016, Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party told msnbc in a statement, "Iowa is a very welcoming place, and we're excited about potential candidates with diverse policy views visiting the Hawkeye State to make their case directly to Iowans." Kaufmann did not return msnbc's request for a more detailed response. 

But the former head of Iowa’s Republican Party, Steve Grubbs, did give a more detailed answer. Grubbs, who also now serves as an adviser for RAND PAC, the Kentucky senator’s political action committee, told msnbc, “In Iowa, Rand Paul has been developing his own brand, separate from his father.” Grubbs continued, “It's definitely true that Ron Paul supporters have a strong interest in a potential Rand Paul candidacy, but what has struck me is the large number of people who like Rand Paul who were not supporters of his father.”

“Archie Manning was a great quarterback," Grubbs explained, "but Peyton Manning blazed his own course in the NFL. So too will Rand.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Rand Paul is not without his own controversial record. One need look no further than his 2010 interview with msnbc’s Rachel Maddow when the then-Senate candidate would not say whether he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, the younger Paul told Maddow in 2010 when it came to the portion of the Civil Rights Act dealing with private institutions, “Had I been around, I would have tried to modify that.” At the end of that lengthy interview, Maddow told then-candidate Rand Paul she thought that was “an extreme view.” 

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when Sen. Paul gave a full-throated endorsement of the Civil Rights Act on its 50th birthday -- something Maddow called an "unimaginable" reversal. When MSNBC’s Ari Melber asked the junior senator about his about-face, Paul pushed back forcefully saying, “I never was opposed to the Civil Rights Act, and I’ve been attacked by half a dozen people on your network trying to say that I’m opposed to the Civil Rights Act.”

But at this point, time is on Rand Paul's side. With the 2014 election cycle in full swing, Paul can continue making trips to states important to the 2016 race without the full attention of the political media on his every move. And in that time, Rand Paul can road test his message, attempting to find the sweet spot between being his father's son and being his own candidate.