The mood was jovial and congratulatory Thursday at the Rotary Club of Louisville as members sang songs of God and country, noshed on lunchtime fare and awaited the man of the hour.
It was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's kind of crowd.
From the podium, the Republican lawmaker flashed an impish grin, made a joke about whether his boyish curls were real, then hammered the Obama administration on what he sees as the federal government's unprecedented overreach on everything from the economic stimulus package to low-flow toilets.
He chided congressional predecessors on both sides of the aisle for not doing enough to curb the ballooning national debt, and managed to slip in a few plugs for his new book, "The Tea Party Goes to Washington," for good measure.
And, as he had all week, Paul played coy when asked about his 2012 presidential ambitions.
"I don't know how that all got started," said Paul, who's visited South Carolina, an important GOP primary state, and has plans to hit several other key primary states while promoting his book.
He's vowed not to run against his father — Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul — but added, "If he does not run, I have not ruled it out."
"Our debt is a serious problem," Paul said, adding that whittling down the debt is a key goal of the tea party movement. "That platform needs to be represented in 2012 and I want to influence who that candidate will be."
And just like that, Paul, a newly-minted senator just three months into his six-year term, made national news — again.
In his first months in office, Paul, arguably the highest-profile face of the tea party movement, has made the rounds on the national media circuit espousing debt reduction, hit key primary states to promote his book and released a budget plan calling for $4 trillion in spending cuts.
However, discerning exactly how much impact Paul's had on the congressional debt debate is another matter altogether.
"Rand Paul has quickly established himself as a leader in the Senate by challenging Washington's status quo with bold ideas to balance our budget and increase personal freedom. He's done more in three months than some senators do in their entire careers," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., an ideological soul mate.
True to his campaign promises, Paul's budget plan calls for eliminating the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and Housing and Urban Development. He'd also repeal the health care law, nix some small agencies and trim the budgets of others.
"For a newly minted freshman senator, he's been more effective than usual in getting publicity and getting news coverage of his causes," said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
Paul's ambitious modus operandi may win him kudos among die-hard supporters, but it certainly won't win friends and influence people when he's trying to cultivate important relationships and coalitions in the Senate, said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Paul isn't part of the so-called "gang of six", a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on a debt solution. Nor is Paul among the group of Republican leaders regularly called upon to have tete-a-tetes with the White House on reducing the federal debt.
Paul also "wouldn't be in the top tier" were he to run for the GOP presidential primary, Sabato said. His newcomer status would make President Barack Obama's brief tenure as a freshman senator from Illinois look like a lifetime by comparison, he added.
"Part of it may be that he looks and sees so far no pure tea party candidate is running," Sabato said. "Is there room for someone like Rand Paul? Sure. This is a free-for-all, and I'll be surprised if we don't have some surprise candidates. Having said that, you don't win a presidential campaign on the fly. You need to have raised money and spent time in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa."
So far, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the only Republican to take the formal step of creating a presidential exploratory committee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are almost certain to run.
Tea party favorites Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann are also mentioned as possible GOP candidates, as are Ron Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and soon-to-be departing U.S. ambassador to China.
So far, Paul's greatest contribution to the debate may be his ability to push the debt-reduction cause through the media buzz that seems to follow him wherever he goes.
During a recent appearance on "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart gave Paul credit for sticking to his pledge to tackle the debt.
"I give you credit, sir, for being the walkiest of the talkers," Stewart said.
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