WASHINGTON -- Sens. Marco Rubio's and Rand Paul's delivery of back-to-back rebuttals of President Barack Obama's speech to Congress -- Rubio as the Republican response, Paul as the tea party rejoinder -- raises some tantalizing questions:
With Rubio being stamped as the early favorite in the 2016 Republican White House race, is Paul emerging as a leading alternative among tea party faithful and other hard-line conservative activists?
If so, does he risk further fracturing a Republican Party that's trying to move toward the center and soften its rough edges in the wake of Obama's decisive re-election three months ago?
Paul, who joined Congress at the same time as Rubio in January 2011, acknowledged Wednesday that he is weighing a presidential run.
"I'm thinking about it, but I haven't made my mind up and won't until 2014," Paul said in an interview. "I'm mostly concerned with trying to do my job as a United States senator from Kentucky, and making sure I'm paying attention to problems in Kentucky and to the national problems we can deal with. Being part of the national debate and doing my job as a Kentucky senator sort of overlap."
While some analysts contrasted Paul's hard-edged remarks Tuesday night -- he rejected bipartisanship and urged voters to "send them home" if lawmakers don't drastically cut federal spending -- with Rubio's more nuanced comments, the junior senator from Kentucky downplayed a potential competition with the charismatic Cuban-American from Florida.
"I see our responses last night as complimentary and not necessarily (indicative of) any kind of rivalry," Paul said. "I don't think it's my job to characterize other senators or their voting patterns. I've got enough work trying to set an agenda for the direction I think the country needs to take. That's more important than any differences or similarities with any other senator."
A poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh, N.C., placed Rubio in the lead for 2016 among Republicans at 22 percent.
He was followed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Paul placed sixth with 10 percent support among those surveyed.
Such polls, though, have little concrete meaning at this stage: Four years ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had single-digit support, yet he was the next to last man standing in the hard-fought 2012 Republican primary contest won by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Whether Paul runs for president, many view him as the natural successor to former Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who reveled in his nickname, Senator Tea Party, and became a hero among conservative activists nationally for his unyielding opposition to all manner of federal spending.
DeMint, who retired last year, endorsed Rubio and Paul in their 2010 Senate campaigns. He contributed millions of dollars to them and other conservative candidates who challenged Republican establishment choices in contentious primaries that highlighted the party's internal splits.
But while Paul remains an unapologetic tea party booster, leading the movement's charge within Congress could prove as much a hindrance as a help to his political ambitions.
The 2012 election exit poll by the major TV networks put tea party support among all voters at 21 percent -- about half the 41 percent level it reached in the same exit survey for the 2010 congressional elections that swept Republicans back into control of the House of Representatives and cut Democrats' margin in the Senate.
In another sign that the group's clout may be waning, the main TV networks didn't broadcast Paul's "tea party response" to Obama's State of the Union address late Tuesday, in contrast with their high-profile coverage of its first such rebuttal of Obama by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota two years ago.
Sal Russo, a Sacramento, Calif., Republican consultant and prominent tea party strategist, said Wednesday that the movement's apparent decline is deceiving.
"Thanks to a lot of attacks on it, the tea party label is definitely not as powerful today, but what makes the movement strong is not the label, but its issues," Russo said. "Seventy percent of Americans think we need to address excessive spending and unsustainable debt, and that we need more opportunity for people to realize the American dream. That's what the tea party stands for."
Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., retiree who heads the South Carolina tea party coalition, said the group remains a potent political force, noting that 440 leaders from the Carolinas, Florida, Virginia and other states attended the "State of the Union" tea party convention he helped host last month in his beach resort town.
Dugan holds Paul in great regard.
"One of things that irks me no end is that our politicians are afraid to talk honestly about what they believe," Dugan said. "Sen. Paul is certainly not like that."
Yet Dugan doesn't see Paul as the second coming of DeMint.
"Sen. DeMint was unique and in a different era," Dugan said. "I think there is no one senator now who is going to be singled out as the tea party leader. There is more of board of directors, if you will. It's conceivable that Sen. Paul might be chosen as chairman of the board, but other people come to mind as well, such as (Sens.) Ted Cruz (of Texas), Tim Scott (of South Carolina) and Mike Lee (of Utah)."
In a telling postscript, Dugan added: "I hesitate to say 'Marco Rubio,' because some of his positions are not exactly in sync, particularly on immigration."
Yet, Rubio and Paul embraced the need for immigration reform in their speeches Tuesday night, another signal by Republicans that they must do more to woo Latino voters.
Paul responded cautiously when asked whether he wants to inherit the tea party mantle from DeMint.
"I like to associate myself with the tea party, but it is a grass-roots, ground-up organization," Paul said. "If I'm asked to provide a label for myself, I usually choose the label 'constitutional conservative.'"
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