WASHINGTON — The next presidential race is still years away, but two tracks of the campaign are already beginning to take shape. In the mainstream tier, Senator Marco Rubio is shadow-boxing with former Gov. Jeb Bush and other Establishment figures. But there is a second track for conservative hearts and minds, a la Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee.
And over on Earth 2, the real battle is Senator Rand Paul vs. Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Rare public glimmerings of this could be seen during Rand Paul's State of the Union rebuttal, billed as the official Tea Party response, which didn't go over well with a few political hands connected to Jindal.
"[A]nd now for the rebuttal to the GOP response from 2016 Libertarian Party Nominee Rand Paul #sotu," tweeted Brad Todd a principal at On Message Inc., a Republican media firm whose clients include Jindal (they've helped Paul as well, though he wasn't a client: On Message made television ads paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that supported Paul in his Senate race).
Todd sent a similar tweet on Monday, responding to the National Review's Robert Costa tweeting a Rand Paul quote about only running for president if he'll win: "hence he will not seek appropriate Libertarian Party nom."
And another one a couple days before that, responding to the National Journal's description of Paul as the Republican to watch in 2013: "Might need a fact check on that descriptor? Rs are hawks."
Todd declined to comment for this story. And while tweets may not be a matter of high political strategy, the growing ill will between the camps runs both ways.
"I don't see Bobby Jindal being much of a player on Rand or Marco's side of the field," said one senior Republican operative associated with Paul. "Quite frankly I see him as the 2016 version of Tim Pawlenty without the Minnesota nice."
Paul said on Monday that he will wait until 2014 to make a final decision about running for president, but said that he thought voters were ready for a serious libertarian Republican contender. Jindal and Paul are two men with very different styles but with some similar reform-minded views about making the Republican party more open to minorities and immigrants. Jindal was famously one of the first Republican politicians to condem Mitt Romney's post-election comments to donors about how Obama won because of "gifts" he had given minority voters.
"Aside from a few speeches it's hard for Jindal to claim an outsider mantle," said another Republican strategist. "Tactically they are clearly edging to the populism tone Rand does own or at least unarguably articulates much better."
The strategist said Jindal's people were "threatened" by Paul.
But those close to Jindal say they don't see Paul as a threat because he doesn't pass the smell test of true conservatism. And at any rate, it's too early to get too much skin in the game.
"The only person I know that's running for president is Rand Paul," said one Republican operative. "He's the only one who's said he's running for president. "
"He's not a conservative, he's a libertarian," the operative said. "Hopefully the conservative movement is attractive to a lot of libertarian voters, but to be the leader of the conservative movement you have to be a conservative."
Correction: The original version of this story stated that On Message Inc. made television ads for Rand Paul's Senate race. The ads were made for the NRSC's Independent Expenditure Unit.