- There's a difference between running for president and "running" for president
- Scott Brown served part of one term in the Senate before losing his re-election bid
- There's almost no downside in a politician saying he's considering a presidential run
- Even some of his former advisers say they don't know what Brown is up to
Why in the world would Scott Brown, a former half-term Senator from Mitt Romney's Massachusetts, put himself in the mix for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination?
The real question is: Why not?
When Brown told the Des Moines Register over the weekend that he was heading to the Iowa State Fair "to determine whether there's an interest in my brand of leadership and Republicanism," the news was met with some amusement by political insiders.
After all, Brown has already floated bids for New Hampshire senator and Massachusetts governor, and he doesn't seem likely to pursue either.
Brown was thumped by Elizabeth Warren in his 2012 re-election bid, and he became something of a punch line earlier this year after he unleashed a volley of questionable late night tweets at some online critics.
But so what?
The truth is that in today's media environment, there's almost no downside for a long-shot "candidate" like Brown to tell people he's mulling a White House run. For someone with no real perch other than a paid gig at Fox News, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Just by going to the Iowa State Fair, a must-do for any ambitious pol, Brown will be rewarded with the only currency that matters in modern campaign politics (other than hard fundraising dollars): Buzz.
"Funnel cake and free name ID. What's not to love?" asked Will Ritter, a Boston-based GOP operative and former Mitt Romney adviser. "How many stories got posted about Ed Markey's legislative agenda yesterday? It's fun. Senator Brown's a skilled retail politician and this gives him a platform to talk about a brand of Republicanism we could use more of."
For obsessive political watchers, Brown's shamelessness about the whole enterprise is kind of refreshing.
"I do admire the audacity to just go to the state fair and tweet about it," said Jeff Smith, a professor at the New School and regular contributor to the Washington Twitter conversation.
Brown knows exactly what he's doing.
Will either of them be taking the oath of office one day? Nope. But with so many news platforms to fill -- on television, on the web, on the radio -- a presidential trial balloon or a trip to Iowa is almost guaranteed to get you at least a crumb of media exposure, a boost in stature, and maybe even a few campaign contributions down the road.
Just look at this month's Family Leadership Summit, a gathering of social conservatives in Iowa that drew potential 2016 presidential contenders Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum to the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Both men seem likely to run for the Republican nomination, and both will be returning to Iowa over and over and over again in the coming years. But even if they don't, the two conservatives proved how keeping one's name in the 2016 conversation is its own reward.
In their speeches, Cruz and Santorum issued a series of anti-Obama bromides and boosted their profiles with the grassroots activists who attended the Iowa summit. Neither Republican did a single thing to advance the news cycle other than board an airplane to Des Moines.
Yet there they were, trailed at every turn by reporters from the Washington Post, Des Moines Register, Associated Press, New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, NBC News, ABC News and Fox News.
"The focus on the 2016 presidential contest is completely ridiculous, and everybody knows it," wrote David Weigel of Slate after witnessing the cattle call.
Well, not completely. In our atomized media ecosystem, there's certainly a market for niche political coverage, in the same way there's a market for micro-reporting on the status of Robert Griffin III's return from knee surgery.
More importantly, the presidential cycle is starting earlier than it ever has, with advisers to likely candidates working behind the scenes to assemble campaign infrastructure and peddle dirt on their potential opponents.
On the Republican side, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are driving national discussions about ideology and governance.
Still, there's a difference between running for president and "running" for president, even though it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference.
Running for president requires hard work, an ungodly amount of fundraising effort, a professional team of advisers, polling, a paid media strategy, a voter contact operation and ballot access. See: Romney, Mitt.
"Running" for president means doing a lot of interviews and delivering some well-timed lines in debates. See: Cain, Herman.
Which category does Scott Brown fall under? For the moment, it would seem the latter.
Looking at the 2016 GOP field, Christie probably has the Northeastern Republican lane all to himself, a prospect that would make it difficult for Brown to raise money. Before his Iowa trip, Brown met privately with Christie at the Republican National Committee's summer conference in Boston, a meeting first reported by the New York Times.
Christie raised money for Brown several times during his Senate tenure, and, according to one Christie insider, the two are "very friendly."
Then there's the fact that Brown, who supports some abortion rights, isn't exactly a hardliner on social issues that matter to so many Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.
Even some of his former advisers aren't sure what he's up to. Eric Fehrnstrom, the media strategist who crafted Brown's truck-driving, regular-guy image during his stunning 2010 Senate upset, is not currently advising him, Republican sources told CNN.
Asked by text message if he's serious about a presidential bid, one Republican who talks to Brown often responded: "Who knows. You should call him and ask."
"He's acting on his own, as far as I can tell," another onetime adviser said in an e-mail.
But what if Brown takes off? What if he gains a toehold in New Hampshire, rises to high single digits in the polls sometime in 2015, and gets invited to some Republican primary debates? What if he rattles off a few good lines, has his moment in the sun, and then fades? He will have lost absolutely nothing -- but gained a spot on some vice presidential short lists along with a hike in his post-campaign speaking fees.
Another Republican who has spoken with Brown recently isn't surprised by the sudden interest in the presidential spotlight.
Brown, this person said, is a relentlessly enthusiastic guy who still takes great pride in capturing Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat.
"The fact that he is in Iowa doesn't surprise me," the Republican told CNN. "In '16, it's not a bad idea to put your name out there and see where it takes you. He was enthusiastic about getting back in the national conversation. I could definitely anticipate this."