WASHINGTON – It’s been a fascinating few days for a presumptive presidential candidate sometimes dubbed the most interesting man in American politics.
Any lingering doubt that Republican Sen. Rand Paul might be planning a 2016 run was all but squashed.
The libertarian non-conformist already appeared to be in campaign mode this week — making a 10-stop tour of the battleground nomination state of Iowa; fending off accusations of flip-floppery; and hastily escaping a protest scene.
If his current momentum holds, he could be attracting even more attention in Iowa in about 17 months.
“Rand Paul is for real — a 100 per cent, dead-serious contender, and anyone who underestimates him should have his head examined,” Phil Musser, a Republican strategist who advised GOP presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, told the Wall Street Journal.
He said the Kentucky senator, barely three years into his career as a lawmaker, had achieved a status his perennial-candidate dad, Ron Paul, never did: that of potential Republican nominee.
The past few days have offered evidence of that viability.
For starters, he’s been raising plenty of money. The Journal noted that his $7.8 million raised was significantly more than possible presidential rivals from the Senate Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, albeit a little less than House Rep. Paul Ryan.
He also received some encouraging poll numbers.
A Quinnipiac survey showed Paul significantly out-performing other Republicans in the make-or-break general-election state of Ohio.
He trailed presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton by four percentage points. But that put him within actual striking distance of Clinton — unlike the more commanding leads she held in that same poll against other possible Republican adversaries Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and even against the state’s own popular governor, John Kasich.
Unsurprisingly, he’s also generated attention from his opponents.
He’s already being stamped with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, with different news websites this week running lists of his purported policy switcheroos — all of which have been gleefully pointed out by rivals on the left and the right.
The alleged equivocations have included whether to provide military aid for Israel, intervene in Syria, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, when to use drones, and even whether he supported the entirety of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Meanwhile, video footage of his artful escape from a conversation with protesters went viral this week.
An immigrant woman who entered the country illegally confronted Paul and a pro-deportation colleague as they were eating in Iowa, and he managed to instantaneously wriggle free from the table to leave his colleague Steve King alone in the awkward, on-camera conversation. Paul later explained that he wasn’t trying to escape at all, but had an interview to get to.
It was all in a few days’ work for someone once dubbed “the most interesting man in the (political) world” by a Washington Post headline, the “most interesting man in the Senate,” by Reason magazine and “one of the most intriguing (presidential) candidates,” by a senior aide to President Barack Obama.
So what makes this 51-year-old opthalmologist-turned-senator so interesting, anyway?
His key sales point is that he doesn’t really fit into either big national party. As a libertarian, he styles himself as a third-option-type candidate.
In fact, a Paul campaign platform could potentially skip the political centre entirely — with a few chapters borrowed from the farther reaches of the liberal left, and other chapters taken from the conservative right.
His one guiding principle is less government.
That means less drone strikes, drug laws, prison cells, foreign military intervention, spending, corporate welfare and actual welfare — all of which could make it difficult to place him in a neat left-wing, right-wing political category.
He certainly has detractors within his party.
Among them is a former presidential nominee and fellow senator, John McCain. The noted military hawk is no fan of Paul’s battle-shyness in foreign affairs, and has referred to him as one of Congress’ “wacko birds.”
Meanwhile, he’s courting voters from the other side.
In an interview last week, he continued making appeals to African-Americans, who voted about 93 per cent Democrat in 2012. He appeared in an interview on PBS NewsHour with his Democratic colleague Cory Booker, with whom he’s co-authored legislation that would soften the country’s drug laws, which research says are disproportionately enforced against black people.
“I passionately believe in this,” Paul said.
“I think the war on drugs has a racial outcome, and we ought to try to fix that as well… I don’t think it’s a right or a left issue. I think it’s an issue that we both believe strongly in. I think it’s the number one impediment or one of the chief impediments to unemployment. People can’t get a job because they have to check off a box saying they’re a felon.”
He delivered a similar message a few days earlier in the liberal hotbed of San Francisco — arguing that Republicans should seek votes, and compete, in new territory.
“I think like so many other venues, Republicans have just said, ‘Oh, this is where Democrats go,’ and the Democrats have dominated Silicon Valley,” he was quoted telling a tech conference, by the Politico site.
“But when I’m out there, I don’t hear that from people. I hear from people that, yeah, we’re actually much more fiscally conservative than the president, and we’re socially moderate. And then a lot of them will say, ‘Frankly, we’re more libertarian than we are Republican or Democrat.’
“And I think when people talk about a third way — a way that’s not entirely Republican and not entirely Democrat but takes the best of both worlds — that is most people you meet in Silicon Valley. And I think that’s a microcosm of a large segment of voters, really, across America that aren’t completely comfortable in either party.”