Rand Paul, the diminutive, curly-haired eye-doctor-turned-candidate, stood last week before the cameras in a county GOP office and declared he had someone he’d like to thank.
That person, he said, was the one “who made this election juggernaut possible this year, the person who’s responsible for the growth of the Republican Party more than any other one individual. It’s the guy in the White House.”
And with that, Paul showed himself to be not so bad at the occupation he claims to loathe.
Five months earlier, in a similar appearance, he saluted the activists that propelled him to his GOP primary victory, but there would be no such talk of the tea party on this day.
Once eager to rail against politicians of both parties, Paul now focuses primarily on the one — Obama — Republicans can agree to oppose. Once eager to promote his message, Paul now avoids the national media. References to his tea party base are fewer and farther between, as are references to some of the movement’s more controversial pet issues.
Without changing the core of his anti-government, anti- Washington message, Paul has been willing to massage his rhetoric to appeal to the moderates preparing to pick the next senator from Kentucky. So far it seems to be working. Paul is leading in most polls against Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general, although the race seems to be tightening.
“He’s been persuadable on tactics,” said David Adams, who served as Paul’s campaign manager during the primary. “But not on principles.”
Paul still sounds many of the libertarian notes that stirred tea party hearts and activated the loyal online network devoted to his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas), a onetime presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party ticket. He says federal spending is unsustainable and jeopardizing the future of the country. The Constitution was meant to restrain government, he says, and this election is about restoring balance before it’s too late.
“Can government go so far that we’ll never go back?” Paul asked an audience of tea party activists gathered last week in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati. “What happens when everybody is on the government dole?”
He has said that loose Medicaid requirements have created “intergenerational welfare” and has opposed federal funding for drug enforcement programs. He has said eligibility requirements for Social Security and Medicare will need to be changed for future recipients and floated the idea of implementing a $2,000 deductible to reduce costs.
This is risky rhetoric anywhere, but perhaps particularly so in a poor and aging state that receives far more in federal funding than it pays in taxes.
But between these bursts of what he describes as “adult conversation” about tough decisions on spending, Paul has dwelled on the same message used by Republicans in races across the country.
“I think this election really is about the president’s agenda. Do you support the president’s agenda or do you not support it?” Paul said last Sunday in the first debate with Conway, televised on Fox News Sunday.
That’s not the question Conway wants Kentucky voters to ask themselves as they head to the polls. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, but they are not Democrats who vote along party lines in federal elections. Barack Obama lost to John McCain in Kentucky by 16 percentage points.
Conway instead has tried to make the conversation about Paul’s positions. He regularly describes how Paul is “not understanding Kentucky’s values.” His ads show seniors citizens calling Paul’s comments on Medicare “crazy.”
“He seems to have this world view that government should never touch citizens in any way whatever,” said Conway, a 41-year-old Louisville native who narrowly lost a bid for Congress in 2002.
Paul began limiting media access to his campaign after an interview in May with MSNBC set his general election campaign off to a rocky start. In the interview, he questioned the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American with Disabilities Act, spooking advocates and others.
Some worried that Paul’s views tracked too closely with this father’s, who wants to eliminate the Federal Reserve and the income tax.
But since then, independent groups have spent more than $1.3 million on ads opposing Conway. Much of that spending has come from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and American Crossroads, a campaign group co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove.
To some degree, Paul has returned that embrace from the Republican establishment. After months of speculation, he told reporters this week that he would support Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell for Republican leader. McConnell did not support Paul in his divisive primary bid.
Paul’s former opponent, Trey Grayson, stood by Paul as he addressed the Fayette County Republicans this week. Gone were Paul’s once favored quotes from Thomas Jefferson, replaced by lines from Ronald Reagan. Gone were references to anti-capitalist plots hatched in Copenhagen, replaced now with talk of “balance” between state and federal government.
“It’s not that the government is inherently stupid, although it’s a debatable question,” Paul said, employing one of his regular punch lines. “It’s that government doesn’t get the same signals that businesses get.”
As he wrapped up, Ann Todd, a longtime Republican Party volunteer and a self-described moderate, turned to a reporter with her takeaway.
“You see,” she said, “he’s very mainstream.”