MILFORD, N.H. — Only 24 hours into his presidential campaign, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky upped the ante dramatically in New Hampshire.
Paul, speaking Wednesday at a news conference after his second event as an official candidate, said he must win the first-in-the-nation primary to win the Republican presidential nomination.
"I will say that I think New Hampshire is incredibly important to me," Paul said. "We will try very hard. We are going to do everything to win in New Hampshire. I do think we do need to win New Hampshire."
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It was an unusual answer that candidates typically avoid, and Paul said that "there are no absolutes in politics, and even when a politician tells you absolutely, they come back and change their mind some other time."
Fresh off his announcement Tuesday in Louisville that he is running for president, Paul said he thought his message of liberty would resonate in New Hampshire.
"The way our system works is, there is a great deal of momentum that comes out of the early states, and I do agree with people that say New Hampshire has a 'leave-me-alone' attitude," Paul said. "So that's something that fits very well with what I have to say and what I believe. And so I think we're a natural fit in New Hampshire. And I'm not going to shy away from saying yes, we absolutely, not only do we want to win in New Hampshire, we feel that it's extraordinarily important to win New Hampshire."
Sarah Thomas, a Paducah native who has lived in Bedford, N.H., for about 10 years, told the Herald-Leader she was a fan of Paul's father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, and was supporting his son because "the Republican Party needs somebody who is different and who's going to call them out."
"And I'm hoping that he's the right guy to do that," Thomas said.
Paul's father placed second in the New Hampshire primary in 2012, and Thomas said she thought Rand Paul can do better.
"I think he can because his father did very well here, so I think he can build on that and really get a strong following here in New Hampshire," Thomas said.
Paul spoke to an enthused crowd in this picturesque New England town, inside a town hall that seemed to date from the time the nation was founded. A gazebo sat in the square just across from the event, and light snow began to fall as Paul finished his remarks.
It was a tense first day on the campaign trail for Paul, as the perils of running for president began to reveal themselves to the freshman senator.
His day began with a contentious interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC's Today show, during which Paul accused Guthrie of editorializing after she suggested Paul has changed his position on the threat posed by Iran. Meanwhile, an outside advocacy group known as the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America produced a second ad in as many days attacking Paul for what the group says is a flip-flop on foreign policy.
In his news conference, Paul chuckled when asked about the second ad, telling reporters, "I think they say you're over the target if you're drawing flak."
Nonetheless, Paul sought to explain his evolving posture on Iran by saying the idea of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was "definitely a danger." He said the ads draw from "statements made eight years ago."
"I think events do change," he said. "I think Iran has always been a threat, but I think they're increasingly a threat. So I'm not sure that it's my view has changed over whether Iran is a threat. I think Iran has become more of a threat over the past eight years.
"It's always been a danger, and it's always been something that I've opposed and will continue to oppose."
Paul also weighed in for the first time on Indiana's controversial religious-freedom law, saying, "It's hard for me to even imagine that there would be a question over whether or not you would have religious liberty or the freedom to express yourself how you would want to in our country.
"It is pretty obvious to people that you should be able to decide whether you want to participate in a wedding or not, what kind of wedding you want to participate in, what you say that relates to your expression of your religion. So I don't think there's any question that we should have freedom of religious expression."
Despite the day's media battles, Paul appeared at home in the Granite State, which takes its role in the presidential nominating process seriously.
Lisa Gravel, a volunteer who worked the desk at the front door of the event, was sporting a pierced eyebrow and a "Rand" sticker on her shirt.
As supporters came through the door, Gravel declared, "I'm excited for another campaign season."
Not surprisingly, a tri-corner hat was spotted in the audience, and Paul opened his remarks by embracing the state's motto: "Live free or die."
"New Hampshire's founders didn't seek out the mushy middle," Paul said to wild applause. "They admonished you to live free. A government that takes half your pay does not leave you free. A government that sifts through your personal records does not leave you free."
That line was one of the only updates Paul made to the speech he gave in Louisville.
James Pindell, a politics reporter with the Boston Globe who is an expert on the New Hampshire primary, said he was surprised to hear Paul declare the Granite State "do or die" for his campaign hopes.
"Chalk it up to another difference between him and his dad," Pindell said. "His dad, and all other candidates in recent memory, say they will campaign hard in New Hampshire and hope to win the state's presidential primary. None raise the stakes by saying they have to win. This could be the first campaign promise he won't keep.
"Politicians like to say that you never say never. In New Hampshire, you never say you have to win here, because what happens when you don't?"
Paul's stay in New Hampshire was brief.
The senator is scheduled to continue his kickoff tour with an event Thursday in South Carolina, where he will speak in front of the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that is now a museum ship.