Rand Paul marching on, despite a rocky roll-out

Apr 12, 2015

Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, has been off and running (officially) for the Republican presidential nomination for nearly a week now.

He has, in fact, been running for several years, but he made it official last week with his “Stand with Rand” tour through early primary and caucus states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada.

Paul, a candidate who comes out of the libertarian tradition of his father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, must now expand his reach beyond that wing of the party and try to appeal to the mainstream, Main Street Republicans as well. Not to mention the GOP “elites” – the power brokers, the money people.

The senator from the Commonwealth will, no doubt, get a bump in the polls – both nationally and in the early primary and caucus states – now that he is an official candidate.

That’s what happens. It happened for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas when he announced; it will probably happen for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is expected to announce this week.

Sustaining and building on that bump is the tricky part.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky
Credit Official portrait

In fact, the roll-out of Paul’s campaign was a bit bumpy. Even Kentucky’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, said in an editorial that while Paul can be “glib and appealing,” in a presidential race, he “will have to stand on his own and up to a higher level of scrutiny than he has ever known.”

“Exhibit A” of that was when Paul got into a rather ugly exchange with the Today Show’s co-anchor, Savannah Guthrie, when she asked about apparent flip-flops on some key issues, including whether or not Iran is a threat to the U.S. and Israel.

“Before we go through the litany of things you say I’ve changed on, why don’t you ask me a question?,’’ Paul snapped. “That would be a better way to conduct an interview.”

And, after giving a journalism lesson to Guthrie, Paul campaigned in New Hampshire where he was asked about his views on abortions and if there should be any exceptions to an abortion ban.

Paul had no answer.

“Over the past few days, he’s had some brush fires to deal with,’’ said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly politics newsletter published by Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“He’s had a few issues where he’s contradicted himself; and, when he does that, people are going to notice,’’ Kondik said. “He’s going to be under a lot of scrutiny now.

“When someone is just thinking about running, the only people interested are the political junkies who follow this full time,’’ Kondik said. “Once you’ve announced, everything changes.”

Paul might be able to get away with hedging his position on Iran, Kondik said, “if you didn’t have this focus on what has been going on in that part of the world. The nuclear threat. The horrible executions we’ve seen. It makes an impression on people.”

In this week’s Crystal Ball, Sabato, Kondik and political analyst Geoffrey Skelley write that Paul’s motto – “Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream” – is a slogan “that works on many levels. As a libertarian-inclined Republican, Paul says he wants to shrink the size and scope of government, although in truth when we watched his Tuesday announcement speech we didn’t think a lot of his positions on the size of government sounded all that much different from standard GOP boilerplate.”

Where he really differs from the Republican establishment, Kondik told WVXU, is on his “dovish” foreign policy views – his belief that the U.S. should shrink its military footprint around the world.

“When you look at his views, you have to wonder,’’ Kondik said. “Is the Republican Party going to nominate somebody who is less hawkish than Hillary Clinton?”

Clinton, formerly President Obama’s secretary of state, is expected to officially announce her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination today. And she is by no means a “dove” when it comes to the use of American military might and this country’s involvement in foreign affairs.

The last time the Republican Party had a serious candidate for the presidential nomination who was an isolationist was in 1952, when Sen. Robert Taft of Cincinnati challenged Dwight Eisenhower for the GOP nomination. Taft, the isolationist, lost to Eisenhower.

“Paul might have been more in the mainstream in an earlier time,’’ Kondik said. “You have to go back to Senator Taft for a less hawkish Republican.

Paul and his allies insist that he is no dove on foreign policy, pointing to the fact that he recently sponsored an amendment to a Senate bill that would increase military spending by $190 billion over the next two years – to be paid for by corresponding cuts in other areas.

The question that the Republican establishment is asking about Paul is whether or not he is electable.

It’s a hard one to answer.

Ohio is obviously going to be a key battleground state in next year’s presidential election.

The latest poll of Ohio voters, released March 31 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, had Clinton leading seven potential GOP nominees.

But Paul did slightly better than the rest – he trailed Clinton by only five percentage points 46 percent for Clinton, 41 percent for Paul. Clinton’s lead over former Florida governor Jeb Bush was nine percentage points – and he is the early favorite for the GOP nomination.

Bumpy start or not, Paul will have substantial support – his campaign was crowing Thursday that, 48 hours after his official announcement, the campaign had already raised $1.2 million in online contributions.

What may happen though, if Paul is to have a realistic chance of winning the nomination, is that he will keep inching his way over to the hawkish side. That’s where the GOP lives these days.