Rand Paul is a pol who can read his audience.
Standing in front of more than 100 South Carolina GOP activists in West Columbia on Friday night, the Kentucky senator largely steered clear of the week's two dominant, divisive issues that are tying his party in knots: gay rights and immigration reform.
Instead, he diverted from his early-presidential-primary-state speech script and went for the jugular on a topic that, while not necessarily timely, would surely please a military-friendly crowd: a full-throated defense of profiling.
“After 9/11 we had a special program for student visas ... Why?" Paul asked. "Because 16 of the 19 hijackers were overstaying their students visas. Was it targeting? Was it profiling? Yes. Because only certain people are attacking us. Why don’t we use some brain sense to go after the people who are attacking us?"
The guests ate it up, rewarding Paul with sustained thunderclaps. It was one of his biggest applause lines of the night. But it was also a curious statement from a likely 2016 White House contender who built his brand on a libertarian approach to government. This, from the same guy who stood on the Senate floor for 14 hours to protest the potential use of drones to target Americans?
Yet the undertones of Paul's full 23-minute speech to GOP activists at the state farmers' market were unmistakable: rest assured, I'm not my father.
Paul is well aware of his dad's reputation in the Palmetto State. Former Rep. Ron Paul barely competed in the 2012 primary here largely because his isolationist worldview was deemed a nonstarter in a place home to eight military bases. To be competitive here three years from now, Rand knows he needs to vanquish Ron's long shadow.
So gone were Paul’s barbs about the IRS, his musings about diversifying the party, and his lengthy critique of the immigration bill that’s dominated Congress for the first half of the year. Even his standard line of attack against Hillary Clinton was subdued. Instead, in addition to endorsing targeted screening at airports, he earned audible accolades for his call to sever foreign aid to hostile countries and a forceful defense of Israel’s right to exist.
The address was almost exclusively devoted to foreign affairs and tactics employed in the country’s struggle against terrorism—a marked change from his previous early-state primary speeches and a subtle acknowledgment that he must prove he’s no softy when it comes to national security.
Paul’s top political aide, Doug Stafford, dismisses the idea that there was a concerted strategy driving this particular messaging. “Quite sure either way was not deliberate. He has 40 minutes’ worth of stuff to say at any given moment and hates speaking more than 20,” he tells me.
It's not that Paul walked away from his core libertarian philosophy. He stood by his belief that even those charged with the most heinous, evil crimes—like the Boston bombing—deserve a day in court.
“You may not all agree on this, but it’s worth thinking about,” Paul cautioned before explaining his rationale to halt indefinite detentions of possible terrorists.
When he bravely posited his idea of a full audit of the Pentagon, he was met with complete silence. But he strived to emphasize that greater oversight of the military isn’t incongruent with support for troops on the ground.
“People say, you’re not going to go to South Carolina and talk about waste in the military, are you? There’s waste everywhere. Anybody’s ever been in the military knows there’s waste. Doesn’t mean I’m against national defense. National defense is the most important thing we spend money on,” he implored.
Hogan Gidley, a former state party official who advised Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid, says it was evident that Rand’s mission was to wipe away any perception that he was weak on defense.
“His father, rightly or wrongly, was saddled with being anti-military. I think he wanted to say ‘I’m a little tougher’ from the foreign-policy standpoint. South Carolinians love that stance. He wanted to get out front of being outflanked on the right on military issues,” Gidley says.
Rep. Joe Wilson, one of two members of the congressional delegation who attended the event, says the speech allayed fears he had about Paul’s posture on the military.
“He really did address the concern I had, which was his position relative to national defense. I had a misperception that he did not recognize national defense as a paramount function of government. But he really made it clear tonight he does,” Wilson said in an interview. “He reiterated something very important to me and to the people of South Carolina: that he is a stalwart of a strong national defense. I was very pleased by his positive comments.”
There are striking parallels between Paul’s effort to win over more hawkish members of the party in South Carolina and his play last month in Iowa to assure social conservatives he shares their values if not all of their exact issue positions.
It’s a thin line to walk for a candidate in the making whose libertarian streak helped define his identity, but could ultimately limit his ambitions. He is astute enough to address his vulnerabilities with large sections of the party. But with every speech or position that’s calibrated to win converts and broaden his appeal, there’s the risk that he could end up losing part of the fervent base built for him by his father.
The difficulty of his political calculus was on display last week when he delivered two disparate reactions on the Defense of Marriage Act to two separate media entities. While Paul told ABC News he deemed the high court’s ruling striking down DOMA “appropriate,” during an appearance on Glenn Beck’s radio show that same day, he suggested that the decision could lead to marriages between animals. “Does it have to be humans?” he asked.
A spokeswoman later attempted to characterize Paul’s comments as “sarcasm,” but Paul was eager to clarify his remarks again Friday during a short media availability with reporters.
“There’s been a lot of confusion. I’ll try to clear it up. I am for traditional marriage. That’s just who I am. I wasn’t jumping up and down about the ruling, OK? Some reports made it out that I was, you know, complimenting [Justice] Kennedy, that I was in love with this ruling. What I was trying to say to people, what I try to say again today is, the silver lining to the ruling for social conservatives is that it appears to have left the decision up to the states,” he told me.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a close friend of Rand’s who jogs and plays baseball with him, says he believes what most significantly separates the senator from his father is his ability to crisply articulate his ideas in a marketable fashion.
“Rand knows how to deliver the libertarian-leaning conservative message better than anybody, at least as well as anybody,” says Mulvaney. “Some folks might’ve looked at Ron Paul and dismiss him out of hand because he was far too extreme to them. They’ll not be able to do the same thing with Rand after they meet him. If you sit and talk to Rand, he comes across as extremely bright, extremely articulate, and the farthest thing from crazy or extreme.”
The speech in South Carolina offers an acute example of Paul’s crafty approach to winning over a room—with some instant evidence of success. But ironically, it simultaneously exposes the outline of a potential attack that could be used against him by a 2016 rival: that Paul has morphed into a panderer, all too willing to tweak his positioning in the pursuit of politics.