WASHINGTON — Rand Paul may only yet be a candidate for re-election to the Senate in 2016, but the first-term Kentucky Republican already is sprinting toward the race for president.
The libertarian-minded lawmaker is set to visit several Western states this month before reintroducing himself to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and his team is working to strengthen his political network in nearly every state.
At the same time, he is readying for a leading role in the GOP's new Senate majority while pushing to improve a Republican brand he says is "tattered."
Aides insist that Paul has not finalized his decision about the White House, but his aggressive steps leave little doubt about his ambitions.
"Everything's being prepared as if it's happening, with the knowledge that the final trigger hasn't been pulled yet," said Paul senior aide Doug Stafford.
Some see the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a two-time presidential candidate, as a transformational figure capable of expanding the GOP's appeal beyond its traditional base of older, white men.
While calling for a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of the federal government, the 51-year-old Paul plays down social issues such as gay marriage, criticizes a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly incarcerates blacks, and favors a smaller U.S. footprint in the world.
Rand Paul should expect challenges every step of the way.
About his father's legacy. About contradictions between his past comments and today's words. About his willingness to take on the status quo. About a Kentucky law that says he cannot run for president and re-election to the Senate at the same time.
"I just don't see him getting too far with an isolationist foreign policy and a pro-gay marriage agenda," said Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina-based veteran of Republican presidential politics.
Paul's unorthodox views rub some Republicans the wrong way. But it's his family ties that may represent his greatest challenge.
His father was largely dismissed by the Republican mainstream as quirky and extreme, particularly on foreign policy. But the elder Paul won a loyal following of libertarian-minded Republicans who ensured that he was a bigger factor in the last presidential contest than many realized.
Rand Paul inherits many of those supporters, and the baggage that his father's unconventional views bring.
"The very thing that makes Rand Paul significant is the very thing that hurts him: his last name," Gidley said. "It presents a huge challenge."
Rand Paul has spent much of the past year trying to distance himself from his father's positions, which include dissolving the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, and closing U.S. military bases abroad. The senator's aides suggest that Rand Paul is not likely to discuss his father should the lawmaker join the 2016 presidential contest.
In a recent interview, Paul acknowledged advising his father's campaigns, but said his dad plays a limited role in his own political plans.
"We don't really talk about specifics about what I should do or what I am doing. He's very much hands off on all of that," Paul said. "My challenge is just to present who I am and what I stand for."
What he stands for, however, has changed in some cases.
Campaigning in Iowa over the summer, Paul said he never had proposed cutting off U.S. aid payments to Israel. It did not take long for him to be confronted by his own statements from 2011, when he offered a budget plan that called for ending such aid to all countries, including Israel.
He has faced tough questions about his position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul initially suggested that the federal government should not have the right to force business owners to serve blacks, an important part of the act. Paul later said he would have voted for the bill in its entirety.
"The comments he made about Civil Rights Act just a few years ago still ring loudly in ears of black voters. He's going to have to go a bit further to walk his talk," said Benjamin Jealous, a former president of the NAACP.
Still, Jealous says Paul has done more to court black voters than have most of the prospective GOP candidates. For one, Paul was the only 2016 hopeful to meet with black leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black man was shot and killed by police.
"Rand has a chance to build a new coalition for Republicans," Jealous said.
But first, Paul will have to navigate a Kentucky law that bars candidates from appearing on the ballot for more than one office in the same election. He has said he plans to seek a second Senate term. His team has expressed confidence that he could run for both offices with little trouble.
Paul says he will announce his presidential plans this spring.
Until then, he will stack his schedule with speeches, fundraisers and political appearances as his paid staff in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere courts Republican officials and conservative activists. In addition to boosting his profile, he said he is eager to help his party.
"I'm trying to give the Republican Party a new image," Paul said, "because the old one's a bit tattered."