WASHINGTON — Senate candidate Rand Paul's Republican colleagues have tried to put into context his controversial comments about anti-discrimination laws and the Obama administration's handling of the Gulf Coast oil spill, but they bemoan the political newcomer's gaffes.
He should focus less on the national media spotlight and more on Kentucky and the economy, Republican insiders said Friday.
"He needs to understand that for Republican officials who want to be unified and get behind him, it's going to be hard to do that if he keeps having cringe-worthy moments," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican political strategist and former George W. Bush administration official.
In an indication that he was heeding advice to limit his national exposure, Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of NBC's Meet the Press, tweeted late Friday afternoon that Paul said he was having "a tough week" and was trying to cancel his scheduled appearance on the show this Sunday. According to Fischer, only Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia have ever nixed planned appearances.
The Paul campaign did not return phone calls from the Herald-Leader, but it told others that Paul was tired of talking about his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"Rand did Good Morning America today, set the record straight, and now we are done talking about it," campaign spokesman Jesse Benton told The Washington Post. "No more national interviews on the topic."
Paul's problems began in an interview Wednesday night on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, in which he told the liberal host that, based on his belief in limited government, private businesses should not be forced to abide by civil rights laws. After the uproar Thursday, Paul issued a statement saying he abhors discrimination, backs the 1964 Civil Rights Act and wouldn't support its repeal.
In an appearance Friday morning on ABC's Good Morning America, Paul called President Barack Obama's handling of the oil spill anti-business and "really un-American" and said of the oil spill that killed 11 and a mining accident last month in Kentucky that killed two miners, "Maybe sometimes accidents happen."
"In any campaign there's going to be a few bumps," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, stressing that Paul has said he abhors racism and doesn't support repealing the Civil Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act, which bans housing discrimination.
On the eve of a post-election Republican "unity" rally in the state, Kentucky politicos are anxiously watching to see what, if anything, Paul's handling of this very early campaign crisis says about his performance in the general election.
Meanwhile, Democratic operatives are gleefully disseminating any and all news of Paul's gaffes and are poised to expand those missteps into questions about his philosophy on a variety of other topics where individual rights clash with government regulation.
It was a short honeymoon for Paul, a Tea Party-backed eye surgeon from Bowling Green whose anti-Washington establishment campaign nabbed national attention as a symbol of grass-roots insurgency and a foreshadowing of things to come in this November's congressional elections.
Shortly after winning a GOP primary against Kentucky's secretary of state, Trey Grayson, who was backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul's controversial comments have roiled his fledgling general election campaign.
Paul is facing a firestorm of criticism by the very national media that just a few short days ago rushed to book him for appearances. Paul and his supporters blamed the Democrats for painting comments as incendiary and the mainstream media for fanning the flames.
"Unfortunately, this appears to be another partisan attack fabricated by the Democrats in order to distract from the issues that Kentuckians care about, like Jack Conway's support for the Democrats' massive health care law," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referring to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, Paul's Democratic opponent in the fall. "It is apparent that the Democrats are trying to twist Rand Paul's words and create an issue that does not exist because they are rightfully worried that he is leading Jack Conway by double digits."
Democrats say they have no need to twist Paul's words — he does a fine job of that himself.
Political analysts say it's too early to tell exactly how Paul's statements and libertarian, limited-government philosophy will affect the outcome of November's general election. But one thing is certain — the more Paul talks about topics other than the economy and the national deficit, the more fodder he provides for Conway.
"These hosts like Rachel Maddow are extremely smart and they are not your friend," said Jennings, the Kentucky GOP political strategist. "When you were the thorn in Mitch McConnell's side they were interested, but now that's no longer the case, they have no use for Rand Paul. He needs to think about 'Does this get me any closer to beating Conway,' and he needs to ask himself if the risk (of appearing on national television) is worth it."
Conway's camp would not say Friday how it planned to use some of Paul's beliefs or stances in its campaign. However, campaign manager Jonathan Drobis sent out a letter to supporters Friday afternoon saying, "You and I both know Rand Paul is out-of-touch with most Kentuckians. His world view is so narrow and outside of the mainstream, he opposes even the most fundamental protections for citizens. As Jack said — it's up to us to stop him."
Conway also blasted Paul's stances during an appearance on CNN Friday afternoon, calling Paul the "prince" of the Tea Party movement.
Political analysts say Conway will have to poke truck-sized holes in Paul's conservative political armor to win in a state that voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008 and where Obama remains unpopular.
"Rand Paul has to be the issue," said Danny Briscoe, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chair and a campaign consultant. "Conway has to show that these beliefs are emblematic of a group of ideas that could be dangerous to the people of Kentucky."
For his part, Paul will have to work to overcome early perceptions and convince voters that he can best represent them in Washington.
"I know how much he loathes getting political advice from the establishment, but he needs to get advice because they know what they're doing and how to win elections," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report.
Halimah Abdullah reported from Washington; Beth Musgrave reported from Frankfort, Ky.