I believe a conservative Republican can win a head-to-head contest against an establishment Republican in the primaries, and, for that matter, against an establishment Democrat in the general election. And the establishment of both parties knows this, which is why they rely on splitting the conservative vote by backing fake conservative candidates (e.g. Santorum and Gingrich in 2012). This strategy has worked for decades: 1964 (Goldwater) and 1980 (Reagan) being the exceptions.
So, if Rand becomes THE conservative choice, I think his chances are very very good at winning both the nomination and then the general. But if he allows himself to be marginalized as just one of several plausible conservatives, as Ron was in 2012, the conservative vote will split again and we'll end up with Romney 2.0, followed by a third (and possibly fourth) Clinton administration.
I might add, to become THE conservative choice, Rand MUST win the support of the Christian conservatives. Otherwise, they'll rally around some big government bible-thumper like Rick Santorum...again. I think Rand has the secular conservative vote locked up pretty good right now, the challenge is getting the Christian conservatives on board. Rand will never be able to out-bible-thump the Santorums of this world, nor should he try. He should just reduce his negatives among Christian conservatives. If the Christian conservatives are just lukewarm toward Rand's stance on social issues, but hot for his economic policies, they'll choose him over a Santorum. But if they hate his stance on social issues, then they'll vote for a Santorum no matter how much they love his economic policies.
"Alas! I believe in the virtue of birds. And it only takes a feather for me to die laughing."
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