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Bill Straub: Presidential hopeful Rand Paul, once a GOP fave, seems to have lost his edge

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the man who would be president, appears to have hit the dog days of summer a bit early.

After heading into the warm weather months by basically alienating every potential political ally within arm’s reach, the Kentucky Republican sought comfort in the embrace of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has all but declared war on the federal government over the issue of grazing rights, backing up his claims with an armed stand-off with Bureau of Land Management officials.

Just the sort of guy a presidential candidate ought to be rubbing elbows with. Well, at least he nailed down the Posse Comitatus vote.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul

That done, Paul’s campaign announced that it had raised $7 million during the second quarter of 2015, calling to mind a quaint old phrase rarely heard anymore – “chump change.’’ While the haul placed him in the middle of the pack, remember the pack consists of about 16 contenders and positioned him behind the likes of Dr. Ben Carson, who has never run for public office before. Carson over the period outraised Paul by more than $1 million.

And he is losing ground. Like almost every other GOP hopeful Paul has been trumped, so to speak, by businessman Donald Trump, whose bilge-spewing style has proven popular with portions of the GOP electorate, especially those who would love to witness Mexican immigrants drown in the Rio Grande. Paul is running seventh in the RealClearPolitics polling average, with 6.6 percent of those questioned offering their support. He not only trails the likes of JEB! Bush and Trump, but the aforementioned Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is trying his darnedest to make Trump look sane in comparison.

All in all it has not been a good few weeks for the Paul campaign. But, as also-rans often note at this stage of a campaign, a year away from the nominating convention, it’s early yet and things can happen.

Still, there’s a growing perception that the Paul effort is in trouble. It has lost ground to the pack leaders and there’s no indication that his ersatz libertarian message is striking a chord with Republican primary voters. His break-out efforts have attracted a collective yawn, and now there are questions regarding whether he’ll prove capable of raising the sort of dough necessary to stage a serious campaign.

In light of all this, Paul has taken to playing it safe. Talking to reporters in a visit to Elizabethtown, he refused to address Trump’s pseudo-racist remarks about illegal aliens from Mexico (“They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists” to the U.S.) and ignored inquiries about a handful of Kentucky county clerks refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. He also announced he intends to skip this year’s St. Jerome’s Fancy Farm Picnic, the unofficial launching pad for the commonwealth’s political season, to campaign in New Hampshire, skipping the BBQ pork and mutton for whatever dish they serve in the environs of Manchester at this time of year.

And now, after expressing support for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities and asserting at one point in his career that the rogue nation didn’t pose a national security threat to the United States or Israel, he issued a tweet opposing the landmark treaty, saying — you guessed it – the deal leaves Iran with “significant nuclear capacity.”

The fall from grace deserves an explanation, although in politics it’s never just one thing and there are always factors that go uncited.

The fall from grace deserves an explanation, although in politics it’s never just one thing and there are always factors that go uncited.

It would be healthy to consider at this point that Rand Paul was once considered an early frontrunner for the Republican nomination, his often-cited libertarianism considered viable to bridge the gap between the party’s moderate faction and the red meat crowd. Observers maintained his philosophy would attract younger voters who are spurning the GOP like Trump snubs a competent barber (hair joke No. 1).

As a perceived favorite in the crowd, Paul started to build what is considered an estimable 50-state organization and went about the business of trying to convince voters and the GOP establishment (rich folks who give money to candidates) that he isn’t a wild man. One national poll taken of Republicans primary voters in the high cotton days of March 2014 placed him in the lead at 16 percent.

That edge has obviously dissipated. A year ago, a survey by Public Policy Polling, a firm that leans toward Democrats, had him ahead of the field in Iowa, drawing 18 percent. That same poll now has him tied for fourth at 10 percent with Huckabee. And if he’s found a way to beat Gov. Scott Walker, from across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, in the Hawkeye State’s first in the nation caucuses, he’s keeping the strategy close to the vest.

The fall from grace deserves an explanation, although in politics it’s never just one thing and there are always factors that go uncited.

But one area of emphasis that seems to have changed since the heady days of July 2014 is foreign affairs. Paul has, over the years, maintained that the U.S. should play a lesser role on the world stage, leaving it to other nations to handle their affairs. War hawks within the party, especially Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who is also seeking the GOP presidential nomination, maintain that Paul’s views offer a real threat to national security and should be rejected. It seems people are listening.

Graham said if he doesn’t capture the nomination he will support the Republican nominee in November 2016 over whomever the Democrats put up. But he made it clear that Paul is last on his favored list. Considering that a vast majority of party regulars stand closer to Graham’s fire breathing than Paul’s hands-off approach, the Kentuckians’ rise has hit a wall. Paul has tried to tack to the right recently on foreign policy, but it’s like putting a hippo in a tutu and calling him a ballerina.

Republican primary voters also are becoming increasingly conservative and are looking for a candidate with blood dripping from his or her mouth. Paul has, in the past, at least, maintained a relatively moderate view on immigration, illicit drugs and other issues that are unacceptable to the base.

It’s fair to point out that JEB! is on the moderate side of the GOP spectrum and he, to this point, at least, maintains the lead. But of the 16 declared legitimate contenders, and there may be a few more, he is just about the only one with any semblance of moderate bona fides. The rest – Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, Carson, Huckabee and even someone like Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida – make Vlad the Impaler look like the Dalai Lama in comparison. JEB!’s test will come when the conservatives start dropping out fore and aft and right-wing voters coalesce behind one savior.

Bet on Walker.

Regardless, the parsing has actually condemned Paul to something of a no man’s land, neither fish nor fowl. He is a boutique candidate facing a big-box store electorate. To this point, at least, the customers aren’t eager to sample his wares.

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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. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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