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Bill Straub: As Rand Paul tests presidential waters, the response so far is a tepid maybe

There’s little doubt, as evidenced by his words and actions, that Sen. Rand Paul believes he should be the next president of the United States and that, given the opportunity, he’d make a darn good one.

The trick, of course, is convincing Republican primary voters and then, in turn, the American public, that they should be as confident in his abilities as he is. Thus far the answer he has received — amid what promises to be a crowded GOP field — is a tepid maybe.

Paul, a Kentucky Republican in his first term, has been spending a substantial amount of time in Iowa, the site of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, remaining coy about his true intentions. But no one, including native Iowans, voluntarily spends their steaming summers in the Hawkeye State without a purpose, and Rand Paul certainly has one.

Rand Paul

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul

Right now the polls are mixed. A McClatchy-Marist survey released on Aug. 14 shows Paul running in single digits nationally, attracting 7 percent of the GOP vote, placing him a disappointing sixth, tied with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hold the lead with 13 percent each. But the contenders are well bunched, and some earlier polls showed Paul holding a tentative advantage.

Physically at least, Paul doesn’t come across as presidential timbre. While it’s true that at 5-foot-8 he could look down his nose at James Madison he is far cry from Lincolnesque. His curly, unruly hair attracts some public curiosity – in fact it is the subject of its own Facebook page. It seems the District hasn’t seen a similar hairstyle since Thomas Jefferson left town – and he was wearing a powdered wig at the time.

Paul is not a fashion plate. He has an affinity for jeans and sometimes dons a rumpled pair with a sports coat and neck tie, drawing sneers from the clothes police (“…could we not wear grown-up suits when we are running for high office?” asked conservative commentator Peggy Noonan). When he slips on a suit it often seems like he slept in it.

He can be a bit testy and has displayed signs of a thin skin, not always a great political characteristic. Paul’s greatest accomplishment thus far in his tenure has been his ability to stand on the Senate floor speechifying for almost 13 hours without finding it necessary to visit the men’s room.

But Paul is grabbing attention. Kentucky rarely provides a viable contestant for the national political beauty pageant, at least it hasn’t in recent decades. There was Abe Lincoln, of course, and Henry Clay took a shot at the title three times in the first half of the 19th Century, failing in each instance.

The name of Alben Barkley, vice president under President Harry Truman, was bandied about but it never went very far. It’s sometimes forgotten that former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. ventured to Iowa to look at the 1984 Democratic caucuses but he never made a serious run. Another former governor, Martha Layne Collins, saw her name come up as a potential Democratic nominee for vice president in 1984 – standard-bearer Walter Mondale was looking for a woman – but the job went instead to Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.

Paul, unlike Clay who was famed in his day as the Great Compromiser, has positioned himself as the Great Un-Compromiser. Now, with national ambitions, he is looking to strike a delicate and difficult balance – broadening his appeal to co-opt establishment Republicans and general election voters while simultaneously retaining the allegiance of Tea Party loyalists who catapulted him to the U.S. Senate in the first place.

The result is an interesting hodgepodge of positions, a one-from-Column-A-two-from-Column-B sort of candidacy that seems to borrow ideas from conflicting perspectives, a strategy that ultimately could prove attractive while also offering its share of potential pitfalls.

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In 2011, for instance, Paul, consistent with his libertarian roots, proposed eliminating foreign aid to all countries in the Middle East – including Israel. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Paul said, “I don’t think funding both sides of the arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else. We just can’t do it anymore. The debt is all consuming and it threatens our well-being as a country.”

Halting aid to Israel is an untenable position for a serious presidential candidate, and Paul is now performing what politicians generally characterize as “backing and filling.” In late July, he supported an amendment providing Israel with $225 million in support of the defense system known as the Iron Dome. And he insists to anyone willing to listen that he never proposed cutting off aid to one of the nation’s strongest allies, although his own words belie his protestations.

But Paul is also attracting kudos from the left for some of his positions on foreign affairs that run counter to Republican orthodoxy. And his comments about the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, in which a young and unarmed African-American man was shot and killed by police, will certainly place him in good stead with a black community that often provides the Democratic Party with 90 percent of its vote.

Writing in Time magazine, Paul said, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.” With that in mind Paul wants to “demilitarize the police,” depriving local authorities of the heavy arms intended for war zones as opposed to Main Street America.

And unlike most of his GOP brethren, Paul has staked out what passes these days for a moderate position on immigration, expressing support for some type of reform that would offer legal status to the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants already on American soil. But he also wants to bolster border defenses and has exhibited little sympathy for Dreamers – those born elsewhere but hustled into the U.S. as youngsters.

And, in keeping with the times, Paul is waving a white flag in the War on Drugs, an initiative that often result in lengthy prison terms for non-violent offenders.

So far his big-tent approach, which draws comparison to the late Jack Kemp, a New York congressman who ran for vice president on a ticket with Bob Dole in 1996, has attracted a cool response from his traditional Tea Party supporters. The McClatchy-Marist poll found that 15 percent of those voters are backing Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, up from 6 percent in April, while Paul has seen Tea Party support drop from 20 percent in a previous survey to 7 percent.

What his campaign thus far has established is that Paul is not a down-the-line libertarian, a description he is saddled with but one he consistently has declined to embrace. He opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest and supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban the procedure. He also personally opposes same-sex marriage, although he maintains that decision is best left to the individual states.

Regardless, Paul remains consistent on his essential issue – reducing the size of the federal government to the point that it could pass through the eye of a needle. That will almost certainly help him retain the support of some Tea Party supporters even if potential rivals such as Cruz draw the majority. Combine that with Libertarians, establishment Republicans who fear some of the contenders have veered too far to the right, and those whom embrace broadening the party and you’re looking at a serious contender.

Kentucky election law does present something of a sticky wicket. Candidates are currently prohibited from appearing on the same ballot twice. Paul is up for re-election to the Senate in 2016. While some dispute exists, Paul might be prohibited from filing as a Republican primary candidate for both president and the Senate.

Attempts to change the law failed to pass the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year and Paul is pondering a lawsuit challenging the statute. Regardless, there exists a small opening. Currently, the Kentucky filing deadline is the last Tuesday in January, which would make it Jan. 28, 2016, if the date holds. The Iowa caucuses are tentatively set for Jan. 18, 2016, and the New Hampshire primary is Jan. 26, 2016.

Those two contests might provide him with an impression of where he stands in the presidential race. If he winds up an also-ran – stranger things have happened – he could still have time to file for re-election to the Senate.

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KyForward Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics.

To read more from Bill Straub, click here.

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