The Rebel

Rand Paul has risen from Tea Party troublemaker to GOP celebrity. Can he reshape a party that never quite took his father seriously?

  • Peter Hapak for TIME

    Rand Paul has risen from Tea Party troublemaker to GOP celebrity. Can he reshape a party that never quite took his father seriously?

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    Riding his momentum, Paul stole the show at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, drawing a standing ovation with a speech blistering the modern GOP as "stale and moss-covered." Two days later, he won the confab's closely watched straw poll, edging GOP heartthrob Marco Rubio.

    Even as he wows the party's activist base, Paul is working its Establishment wing. During the 2010 Senate race, the state's GOP machine rallied behind his primary rival, Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. But Paul harnessed the Tea Party's anti-incumbent energy and his father's fundraising network, steamrolling McConnell's handpicked candidate by 23 points. Since arriving in Washington, the self-styled outsider has learned to play the inside game. Though in 2010 he hinted he might not even support McConnell as Senate Republican leader, in Washington he has formed an unlikely alliance with the canny cloakroom operator. "You've got one who needs to keep the trains running on time and the other whose identity in large part is to make sure the trains don't run," says a senior Republican Senate aide. Their symbiotic partnership grants Paul stature and access while conferring Tea Party cred on McConnell, who faces re-election next year.

    Some of Paul's tactical moves have raised hackles in a movement that obsessively patrols for breaches of ideological purity. When he endorsed Mitt Romney, libertarian websites lit up with rage. "Is he able to move more toward the middle and keep the libertarian base?" asks Grayson, now the director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics. "Can he massage some positions or make them more marketable in a way that doesn't make him seem like a pandering politician?"

    Paul's admirers think so. "The father was a bit of a provocateur. The son is much more political," says Doug Wead, a family ally and longtime conservative political consultant. "He will know when to be quiet and when to speak up about his views."

    Besides, Paul has new fights up his sleeve. His drone filibuster pleased some liberals, who worry about Big Brother at home. But his next talkathon will not delight them. As Democrats readied a new gun-control package, he--along with fellow Tea Party--aligned Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee--vowed another filibuster that would force Democrats to find 60 votes to pass the legislation when it reaches the floor in a few weeks.

    Standing With Rand

    Inside the Paddock room at a hotel in Kentucky's horse country, a pearls-and-blazers crowd is crammed around tables with American-flag centerpieces, waiting to hear its junior Senator. This was the kind of audience that might once have considered Paul kooky, but on a sunny March afternoon they wore STAND WITH RAND buttons and lined up for autographed copies of his political treatise, Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds. Paul entered the room to a hero's reception. "That historic filibuster encouraged everyone that there's still a chance to save America," gushed the woman introducing him.

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