Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Rand Paul's strange and winding path to 2016

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul speaks with local media Wednesday October 23, 2013 in Morehead. Paul said he'll sign up for health benifits under the Affordable Care Act on November 1 Photo by John Flavell
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul speaks with local media Wednesday October 23, 2013 in Morehead. Paul said he'll sign up for health benifits under the Affordable Care Act on November 1 Photo by John Flavell Herald-Leader

"I wish we lived in the day when you could challenge a person to a duel." — former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews in 2004

"If dueling were legal in Kentucky ... ." — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul on This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday

Love him or hate him — and those seem to be the only choices — Rand Paul certainly keeps things interesting.

Who else would target millennial voters and channel Miller's infamous 2004 Hardball performance, which earned a fantastic parody on Saturday Night Live?

That's not to suggest Paul was plagiarizing Miller, the angry Democrat-turned- Republican senator from Georgia, but it does exemplify the strange and winding path the Kentucky Republican is taking toward 2016.

The past week, capped off with a fascinating appearance on This Week, was a bad one for Paul and fully demonstrated the journey he is taking to the 2016 Republican nomination: One step forward, two steps back and all on a tightrope.

Paul's rise to national prominence has been rooted in two assets — he is constantly underestimated and he knows it.

Being dismissed repeatedly as a loon has given Kentucky's junior senator lots of room under the radar to make moves in an effort to broaden his support base and appeal beyond the Tea Party.

Last week revealed that Paul's days as a political ninja have come to an end. He is on the radar screen now, and he received a bruising lesson in how his words will be parsed under the glare of the national spotlight.

It also revealed that the senator has no intention of following a traditional playbook as he considers a presidential bid.

It might seem dumb that he continues to be defiant in the face of "hacks and haters," as he called MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and others who accused him last week of plagiarizing lines from Wikipedia and other sources in speeches and a book. He went on to joke that he'd like to challenge such critics to a "duel."

"If dueling were legal in Kentucky, if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge," Paul said. "But I can't do that, because I can't hold office in Kentucky then."

But it's worth remembering that few Republican politicians have ever suffered from blaming the media for their ills.

What's more, Paul probably won't take a hit on the issue with the segment of voters he seems to covet the most: millennials.

People who are 18 to 29 years old made up 19 percent of the voters in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, and if President Barack Obama had not won 60 percent of the 23 million of them who turned out on Election Day, he'd be enjoying early retirement right now.

Paul took those lessons to heart and has made it clear he intends to target a demographic that is voting more consistently than seniors.

While odious to academics and journalists, Paul's Internet rip-offs probably are less offensive to voters who have known nothing but the Information Age.

More than a few college professors drew similarities between Paul and their students last week after revelations that he has plagiarized online works. It's worth wondering how many of those students made the same connection.

Secretary Beshear?

Gov. Steve Beshear's outspoken advocacy for the Affordable Health Act is drawing praise from high places, and it's not a stretch to imagine the governor could be on track to replace another Red State governor as Health and Human Services secretary under Obama.

Former Kansas governor and currently embattled Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has given no indication she'll step down while she's under fire for the mass glitches of the federal health care exchange's website, but a battle of this nature takes a lot out of folks.

At a health care event last week in Boston, Obama singled out Beshear and the relative success the governor has enjoyed with the roll-out of Kentucky's exchange.

"Look at Kentucky," Obama said. "Gov. Steve Beshear is like a man possessed with helping more people get covered. He thinks it's the right thing to do. Keep in mind I did not win in Kentucky. But there are a lot of uninsured people in Kentucky, and they're signing up."

The speculation in Frankfort about Beshear's future is probably the combined result of Obama's praise and some hopeful thinking by allies of Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, who would move into the mansion if Beshear moved his camp to Washington.

It's never too early ...

Did you hear the one about Crit Luallen announcing a gubernatorial run with former University of Kentucky president Lee T. Todd Jr.?

Not so fast, Luallen told the Lexington Herald-Leader this weekend.

Despite the persistent rumors, Luallen said she was still very much in the "decision-making phase," and she doesn't want to do anything that would draw attention or money from likely Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.

"I think we need to give her the field for the time being," Luallen said.

Get the countdown clock

Monday marks exactly one year out from Election Day 2014, when Kentuckians will be deciding who represents them in the U.S. House and Senate and the statehouse.

Try to keep in mind that it only will seem longer than that.