Politics & Government

Iowa trip boosts, bruises Kentucky senator with presidential ambitions

Sen. Rand Paul stopped in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Tuesday during three days of speaking appearances throughout the state.
Sen. Rand Paul stopped in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Tuesday during three days of speaking appearances throughout the state. AP

IOWA CITY — Rand Paul has generated buzz for his possible 2016 Republican presidential campaign by doing unconventional things such as speaking to minority audiences his party often ignores. This week, he's taking some very conventional steps.

Wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a sport coat and tie, the Kentucky senator is on a three-day, 714-mile trek across Iowa, the state that will host the first presidential nomination voting.

Paul told Republicans attending a party fundraiser Tuesday that they need to expand their ranks or risk having their vision for governing wiped out.

"There are not enough of us," Paul, 51, told about 100 people gathered at the event in Iowa City. "We need a bigger party."

Paul's trip is the most expansive visit yet to an early voting state for a potential 2016 candidate from either party, and he's engaging in the sort of old-fashioned, foundation-laying exercises that prospective presidential candidates have made here for decades.

He's hiring staff and building an inventory of favors owed to him by Iowa Republicans. His stops include three fundraising appearances for local party organizations and congressional candidates and visits to five state party campaign offices.

At the same time, Paul is getting a taste of what it's like to be among the frontrunners in a nomination race. He hadn't been in the state more than a few hours this week when he was hit with questions about a 2011 CNN interview in which he expressed support for ending U.S. financial aid to Israel.

Via e-mails to reporters, national Democrats also challenged the suggestion that Paul is a different kind of Republican and linked him to Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a favorite of the small-government Tea Party movement.

Paul, while attempting to eat a hamburger lunch with King in northern Iowa, instead got a taste of divisive politics when immigration activists approached their table to confront King. Paul was seen on videotape exiting the table, hamburger half-eaten, as the activists questioned King over inflammatory remarks he has made about immigrants. Paul said Tuesday he wasn't fleeing a potentially uncomfortable scene.

"We had just had someone come up who was a local reporter and ask us for an interview and I said I would do it, and went over and did it, and five or 10 of you guys followed me over to the other interview," he told reporters in Davenport. "We do like scheduled a little better than unscheduled, so does everybody, you know, as far as interviews."

In part, his early work is meant to differentiate him from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who ran for president three times. He's seeking to show that he can appeal to a broader slice of the Republican electorate than the Tea Party activists and libertarians who cheer both father and son.

"No other potential candidate has put in more spadework than Paul and his allies," said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman.

Unless the party changes in some dramatic fashion between now and early 2016, a Paul candidacy would seem destined for at least a third-place finish in the state's caucuses, based solely on support from his father's followers. Ron Paul finished third in the 2012 caucuses, about three percentage points behind former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

"I'm totally ready," said Beverly Dittmar, 43, a stay-at-home mother from Cedar Rapids who caucused for Paul's father in 2012 and came out to see the son Tuesday. "He has the liberty message."

Asked by Bloomberg News what he learned from his father's presidential bids, Paul pointed to the intensity of campaigning.

"You have to meet people four, five and six times in Iowa, because they expect a real personal touch," he said. "In a small, more rural state, you do get more interaction, and I think it's better than having it in a state where you'd have five cities of 10 million people where it would all just be done by ads."

After the 2012 caucuses, Ron Paul supporters took control of the Republican Party of Iowa, a move that alienated some and presents a lasting scar that the younger Paul must soothe.

"Traditional Republicans are intrigued by Paul, but the threshold challenge he is going to have is convincing them that he is different from his top Iowa supporters who have done nothing but create problems for Republicans and top elected officials in the state," Strawn said.

Earlier this year, allies of incumbent Gov. Terry Branstad regained control of the state party. They took the action in part because of concern that some candidates, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also contemplating a 2016 White House bid, might skip the state if they concluded the party was stacked against them.

The political stage in Iowa is crowded this week with appearances by seven potential candidates. Besides Paul, U.S. senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas arrived during the weekend, and Cruz is scheduled to return. Visits are also expected by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Santorum.

So far, Paul is showing the most Iowa intensity, closely followed by Perry and Cruz. He has also hired key staff in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, all states with an early role in the nomination process. He hired two former Iowa state party chairmen, strategist Steve Grubbs and A.J. Striker, who was also his father's 2012 caucus campaign chairman.

Striker said Paul is capable of a "pretty broad appeal" among Republicans and others. "It's a coalition of people who are fed up with government," he said.

Paul's committee, Rand PAC, has contributed $5,000 each to the state parties in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which hold the first round of nomination voting.

However, it is Paul's activities outside the early voting states that have garnered him national attention.

Late last month, he spoke to the Cincinnati convention of the heavily minority National Urban League, vowing to the civil rights group to fight inequalities in the criminal justice system, education and the economy. That was part of a more than yearlong effort by Paul to improve the Republican brand among minority voters that has included speeches in Democrat-dominated Detroit, at historically black Howard University in Washington and to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Paul is also trying to boost his appeal to younger voters, arguing a Republican in the White House would do a better job of protecting their mobile-phone privacy.

"We should tell them that the Republican Party is the party of the Bill of Rights," he said.