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Rand Paul seeks an awkward balance as he prepares to launch presidential bid

06 Apr

Who will lead the right? New breed of Republicans compete to take on Clinton.

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Republican senator Rand Paul will formally launch his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, hoping an unorthodox and somewhat diluted libertarian campaign will lure a new generation of GOP voters without repelling the party’s conservative base.

Paul will launch his campaign for the White House in Louisville, the largest city in his home state of Kentucky, in front of thousands of activists and reporters in an opulent, 23,000-sq-ft ballroom.

The senator is attempting the kind of dance rarely attempted in American politics: reassuring Republican primary voters of his conservative credentials while appealing to some on the left who are drawn to his stances on criminal justice, privacy and foreign policy.

Paul wants to be the candidate that wins Christian evangelicals one day and college students who want to liberalise drug laws the next. Many party insiders believe that may be an impossibly complex path to the White House.

But no one is yet ruling out the former ophthalmologist, who has done more than any other senior figure in his party to build legislative alliances with Democrats and has even attempted to court some of their voters, from African Americans to the denizens of Silicon Valley.

Paul topped the presidential straw poll of the Conservative Action Action Conference (CPAC) for the third time this year, and polling puts him among the early frontrunners in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

After the launch in Kentucky, Paul is scheduled to begin an expensive and ambitious tour across the early primary states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada. He will later head to California, for private meetings with west coast donors.

Each stop will involve a different speech based around a key political theme, carefully orchestrated to either exploit Paul’s strengths or address his perceived weaknesses as he lays down a marker as a serious contender for his party’s nomination.

Analysis from Republican insiders in the early nomination states suggests Paul is already viewed among the top tier of Republican presidential aspirants such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Florida senator Marco Rubio.

He is especially well-placed to make a mark in New Hampshire, a state with strong libertarian tendencies where the rules permit voters outside the GOP to cast a ballot in the primary. He is not expected to do as well in socially conservative South Carolina, which he visits on Thursday.

That stop will be about addressing Paul’s achilles heel: the perception among Republicans that the senator’s libertarian political ideals would render him a weak commander-in-chief. Aides believe the reputation is an unwarranted inheritance from his father, Ron Paul.

The former congressman, who twice sought the Republican presidential nomination, is loathed by Republican military hawks for his anti-war, non-interventionist approach to American nation-building. Rand Paul therefore needs to distance himself from this father’s radical foreign policy, without alienating the large and committed base of libertarian activists Ron Paul cultivated during a lifetime in politics.

In South Carolina, Paul will talk about national security in front of the USS Yorktown, a giant decommissioned warship from the second world war. It is the kind of militaristic backdrop that would make some of his father’s more trenchant supporters squeal, but Paul’s campaign team evidently believes the caricature of the Kentucky senator as a dove on foreign policy warrants some unambiguous messaging.

The recent spate of national security crises, from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to the sudden rise of the Islamic State, have elevated foreign policy discussions among the Republican base and increased its thirst for a president willing to flex America’s military muscle.

Texas senator Ted Cruz, who last month became the first Republican to formally enter the race for the party’s presidential nomination, and is competing for some of Paul’s traditional base support, is positioning himself as a Tea Party hawk.

For Paul, looking to chart an untested path to the Republican nomination – and, later, the White House – success may rely on his own discipline. He will need to sidestep the kind of awkward questions that could repel either the GOP base or the younger, less partisan voters he is trying to bring under his wing.

The last week has been a case in point. When controversy broke out over the Indiana law that critics said would be used to discriminate against LGBT people, Bush, Cruz, Rubio and Walker all backed the state’s Republican governor, Mike Pence.

Two days later, when the historic nuclear deal with Iran was unveiled in Switzerland, the same four presidential hopefuls were quick to condemn the agreement.

Paul, who has supposedly vacationing in in Kentucky, avoided taking a stance on either issue, thereby avoiding the kind of base-pandering remarks that would have alienated supporters who are not hardcore GOP activists. That kind of strategic tap dance is what could make him the most interesting Republican to watch.

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