RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — Once described as her husband's secret weapon, Kelley Paul won't be a secret much longer.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's wife of 24 years is stepping onto the national stage as part of a book tour launching at roughly the same time her husband is expected to enter the 2016 presidential race. It's a big step for the mother of three who has long played a significant behind-the-scenes role in Paul's political operation, but soon will be thrust into a far more public role on the political world's brightest stage.
Rand Paul has made much of his wife being a hard sell on a presidential bid, yet Kelley Paul hinted on Thursday that she's ready for the pressures of a national campaign and its impact on her family.
"I guess I am as prepared as you can be," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'll try to maintain my sense of humor and optimism and just be brave."
Should Rand Paul join the crowded 2016 Republican field later this spring, as widely expected, Kelley Paul will join the ranks of prospective first ladies who help define their husband's political brands. It's a high-profile role that is challenging at best, yet those who know the family suggest that she would adapt well to the next step in her husband's career.
Reserved but politically savvy, Kelley Paul worked for a Republican consulting firm whose clients included another potential presidential candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, before resigning more than a year ago. She is the mother of three sons, ages 15, 18 and 21, already joins team meetings and conference calls, edits speeches and helps prepare her husband for tough media interviews.
"She's a tremendous asset," said John McCarthy, a former Kentucky GOP chairman who has closely followed Rand Paul's rise. "She a very confident person, very comfortable, and she complements him well."
Having sporadically appeared publicly on her own in recent years, Kelley Paul's public profile has begun to grow.
On Tuesday she kicked off a six-stop speaking tour to Republican women's clubs in her home town of Russellville, where she fondly recalled riding in the annual tobacco festival parade and cheering at high school football games. Her 20-minute speech focusing on her Irish immigrant grandmother moved her audiences throughout Kentucky to tears.
This spring, she has media events and speeches planned for Washington, New York and Memphis, Tennessee, before publisher Hachette releases her book, "True and Constant Friends," in April.
Her book traces the paths of six women she met the first week of her freshman year at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Paul said the women have reunited almost every year since they graduated in 1985 despite living throughout the country.
"I believe there's incredible power in friendship, especially that between women," she said.
At the book's center is the story of Kelley Paul's own grandmother, Julia O'Toole, who left an impoverished life in Ireland in 1929 to work as a maid for affluent New York families.
She describes the timing of the book as a coincidence not tied to her husband's potential campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet she speaks openly about the prospect of a White House bid when asked.
"We do talk about it a lot," she told reporters after her Russellville speech. "Obviously, he's laying a lot of the groundwork and doing a lot of the things to make it possible for him to seek the nomination. But we haven't finally made that decision yet."
If they do move forward, history suggests that Kelley Paul could play an important role, particularly in times of crisis.
Toward the end of her husband's 2010 Senate race, she held a rare press conference to decry what she called "a desperate, shameful attack on our family" by a Democratic opponent who ran an ad saying that Rand Paul was affiliated with a college group that mocked Christianity and worshipped a god he called "Aqua Buddha."
Paul's staff at the time decided that his wife should speak to reporters to highlight the public outcry about the ad.
"At the end of the day, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror, and I'm proud to say that my husband will be able to do that when this race is over," she said at the time.