Rand Paul had a good first day as a presidential candidate.
But as soon as Paul left the Bluegrass State to begin his run for the White House in earnest, the campaign trail got decidedly bumpy for the freshman senator.
Receiving intense criticism from his right and left, Paul got out of the gate to poor reviews, leaving a number of analysts wondering if he can right the ship as the campaign season goes on.
Dana Perino, former press secretary to President George W. Bush and co-host of Fox News Channel's The Five, told the Herald-Leader that she thinks Paul has a lot of strengths, but it was undeniable that Paul stumbled in his first days as a candidate.
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"I cannot imagine that this was the rollout that they imagined," Perino said.
Paul's Tuesday announcement in Louisville went off smoothly. But on the morning of his first full day on the trail, Paul grew visibly irritated with Savannah Guthrie, co-host of NBC's The Today Show, as Guthrie sought to pin the senator down on his position on Iran.
Paul's contentious interview, which followed a February interview in which he shushed CNBC's Kelly Evans, sparked a spate of news stories nationwide that questioned the senator's temperament and whether he was ready for the spotlight that comes with being on the biggest stage in politics.
Therein lies the good news-bad news situation Paul finds himself in just days after making his bid official: Negative or not, Paul is getting a lot of attention.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written a book on the state's first-in-the-nation primary, noted that Paul is getting a crash course in spotlight management that his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, never had to deal with in his three presidential campaigns.
"Rand learned firsthand the difficulty of crossing over from a niche candidate (like his dad) to a mainstream candidate," Scala said. "He received more intensive national scrutiny in the first 72 hours than his dad ever received in two runs for the (Republican) nomination."
That media glare will only gain intensity, especially if Paul continues to show solid positions in polling in early-voting and swing states.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, said Paul "needs to learn that what makes the news is his response to press questions, not the questions themselves."
"It doesn't matter how hostile or contentious the interviewer is; it only matters what you say in response," Fehrnstrom said. "The bottom line is it's always better to keep your cool and deliver your message, not become argumentative. Until he learns that lesson, every interview will become a game to see who can get under Rand's skin, as opposed to an opportunity for the campaign to deliver message."
'Providing a vision'
The media skirmishes are only part of the struggle facing Paul as he works to broaden his appeal beyond his father's loyal libertarian following and become a serious contender for the Republican nomination.
The hawkish wing of the Republican Party has been hammering Paul on his foreign policy positions, some of which Paul appears to have altered in recent months.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appears to be considering a presidential bid of his own in part to derail Paul's run, and an outside group, the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, has been running targeted advertising attacking Paul on the topic of Iran everywhere he goes.
Fehnrstrom said Paul "occupies an important place in the Republican field as the spokesman for that anti-establishment, isolationist, libertarian, constitutionalist wing of the party."
"The problem is that wing of the party comprises a minority," Fehrnstrom said. "Even in Rand Paul's stronghold areas like Nevada, he is not going to have an easy path to victory. That's why he's compromising some of his positions. He needs to move closer to the center. His challenge is holding on to his base as he tries to mainstream himself."
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Paul "seems to be struggling at providing a vision."
"He's coming across as a series of issue positions, some inconsistent or at least fluctuating, some refreshingly new," Voss said.
Paul can afford to do that this early in the campaign when voters are not paying close attention, Voss said, "but judging from the campaigns that have succeeded at bringing about big change — such as Reagan's, as the most recent transformative example — Paul will need to refine his message, bring it together into something voters can comprehend, if he wants to build his brand."
'The big leagues'
After his event Wednesday in New Hampshire, where a majority of attendees appeared to be supporters of Paul's father, the senator told reporters that "they say you're over the target if you're drawing flak."
The same day of the interview with Guthrie, Paul conceded to Wolf Blitzer on CNN that he can be "thin-skinned," and he told Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly that night that he does "lose my cool, and I do lose my temper sometimes, and I should be better at that."
Perino noted that Paul's base has built-in dislike and mistrust of the mainstream media, and they will unquestionably take Paul's side in these conflicts, as evidenced by the messages Perino was getting from Paul fans via social media after she criticized his rollout.
But, as Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses and a potential candidate again in 2016, said of Paul in a story by Politico: "This is the big leagues."
Paul has essentially been running for president, unofficially, for four years, and Perino said she was surprised that he and his team had not anticipated the line of questioning from Guthrie.
"It could not have been a surprise to them that the first question that he was going to be asked was going to be about Iran," she said.
'Stock car race'
Kevin Madden, another top adviser to the Romney campaign, said some of the early heat on Paul is a result of his desire to present himself as "a different kind of Republican" in what is expected to become a crowded field of candidates.
"The conservative primary within a primary is going to be very, very competitive," Madden said. "It's like a stock car race where all of the cars are bunched up in a pack, so there's going to be a lot of paint swapped back and forth."
Madden said that "because Rand Paul has a bigger profile and because he has been very aggressive building out his organization in the early states, all of the others like Cruz, Huckabee, and Santorum and Perry — they see him as standing right in their way."
"Because of that, he's going to get extra attention from the field and extra attention from the media," he said.
As Voss noted, running for president puts candidates under a spotlight that is nothing like running for the U.S. Senate in a smaller state.
"Paul has not been especially disciplined in his messaging, as we saw for example with the speech-writing scandal, so the transition to a presidential campaign naturally brings some growing pains," Voss said.
But Paul has undeniably grabbed the spotlight in his first few days as a candidate, even if it hasn't always been for positive reasons.
And in New Hampshire and South Carolina, voters who showed up to hear the senator speak came away enthused at best and curious to hear more about him at worst.
It is, after all, about 10 months until the Iowa caucuses, and as Paul says in his stump speech, nobody thought he would win in 2010 either.
Billy Piper, a former top aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that counting out Paul after a rough few days on the campaign trail is short-sighted.
"I think anyone assuming Rand isn't going to be a factor over the long haul is making a big mistake," Piper said. "He's been underestimated before, but someone as smart, savvy and driven as Rand Paul usually has the last laugh."