Rand Paul as Howard Dean?

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Political observers are divided on this question in advance of this week's Conservative Political Action Conference in the D.C. area -- has Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., emerged as the GOP's 2016 front-runner?

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar say yes, especially with the scandals rocking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.

Slate's Dave Weigel says no, citing Paul's father's association with some controversial figures and voices.

But here's a middle ground and perhaps a different way to view Paul: He has the potential to be a Howard Dean -- someone promising to change his party's thinking who has the potential to catch fire, but who also has the potential to fizzle out.

Like Dean with his opposition to the Iraq war, Paul wants to fundamentally change the Republican Party’s hawkish national-security and foreign-policy tendencies. “America has never backed down from a fight-but we should never be a nation that is eager to get involved in nations' conflicts that work against our own national security,” he said in a Nov. 2013 speech.

Like Dean with the young voters he attracted, Paul wants to bring more young and minority voters into the GOP fold. “We need young people in the party. The president won the youth vote 3 to 1,” Paul said back in January. “Since we’ve had the different spying scandals, I think if there were a Republican who stood up for privacy, who stood up for the Fourth Amendment, I think the young people will come back to us.”

And like Dean, he usually provides an interesting soundbite and engaging interviews.

Those are all positives that could enable Paul to gain traction if he runs for president in 2016, as many expect he'll do.

But here's a big negative: Like what ultimately happened to Dean, an ascendant Paul would likely inspire the other Republican candidates and outside groups to sink his candidacy.

Back in 2004, Dean's famous -- or infamous -- scream wasn't the chief culprit why he lost his party's nomination after surging to be its front-runner before the Iowa caucuses (where he finished third).

Rather, Dean lost the Dem race because everyone else ganged up on his candidacy -- Democratic rivals like Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry (who ultimately won the nomination); the Republican Party; and even a Dem outside group headed by former Obama White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Think about it: If Paul does take off months before the Iowa caucuses, you will see plenty of Republicans and GOP groups want to pile on Paul -- the foreign-policy hawks, pro-Israel donors, Wall Street big-wigs, and maybe some social conservatives (who might not like his libertarian-leaning views on drug sentencing and gay marriage).

And, as Weigel writes, those same folks will want to tie Paul's father -- and his associates -- to the Kentucky senator.

It's all a reminder of this trend in recent presidential primaries: Sometimes, it's not an advantage to be the early frontrunner.