Rand Paul launches 'anti-Washington' campaign

Rand Paul Image copyright AP

On a stormy Tuesday morning, deep in the bowels of the massive 1,200 room Galt Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, Rand Paul launched his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Paul doesn't sound like your average Republican presidential candidate, and at times his event didn't look much like a traditional Republican presidential kick-off. Very early on, he criticised both Republicans and Democrats for being creatures of a political establishment that is unresponsive to the American people.

"Too often when Republicans have won we have squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine," he said. "That's not who I am."

The morning started with a video by country music singer John Rich featuring a blue-collar factory worker being laid off and the refrain, "Here in the real world they're shutting Detroit down" - interspersed with wonky soundbites of the Kentucky senator talking about "economic freedom zones".

Even the litany of introductory speakers - each punctuated by a promotional film touting Mr Paul's accomplishments - looked a bit different, featuring a black preacher, a Hispanic state politician and a young activist.

"I've been a Democrat all of my life, but in 2012 I decided I can no longer follow the leadership in the Democratic Party," said Louisville-area minister Jerry Stephenson. "I am an independent, and I am telling every independent that it is time to... run out here with Senator Rand Paul."

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Mr Paul has stood apart from the prospective candidates in the Republican field with his emphasis on civil liberties, including reforming what he sees as overly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent offences, limiting government surveillance, and resolving the fate of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

One need only contrast Tuesday's speech with Texas Senator Ted Cruz's presidential announcement last month to understand the range of choices Republican primary voters will be facing next year.

Mr Cruz tried to connect to the audience with talk of spirituality - "Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I wouldn't have been saved and I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household."

In Mr Paul's speech there was hardly a mention of religion - personal spirituality took a back seat to tributes to individual liberty.

"We need to boldly go forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other," he said.

His personal appeals rested on references to his time as a "small town eye doctor" and included a story about his volunteer medical work in Guatemala.

But there were other parts of Mr Paul's speech that were standard Republican presidential announcement fare.

"Washington is horribly broken," he said, calling for congressional term limits - a long-toothed Republican standby. He also touted his "Read the Bills" act - a gimmicky measure that would delay pending legislation from being voted on until members of Congress have sufficient time to review the language. Delays could last months for longer bills, although his proposal comes with significant loopholes.

Those observing Mr Paul's recent speeches say that he's not the ideological true believer some make him out to be. He's changing his views to help broaden his appeal to Republican voters.

While it's easy to paint Mr Paul with a libertarian - rigidly pro-freedom, anti-government - brush, he lacks the across-the-board ideological purity that typified the presidential campaigns of his father, former Congressman Ron Paul.

"Paul is a candidate who has turned fuzzy, having trimmed his positions and rhetoric so much that it's unclear what kind of Republican he will present himself as when he takes the stage," write Robert Costa and Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post

Image caption Sigurd Mandell-Zayon drove for 12 hours from Philadelphia to see Paul speak

Gone, for instance, are the diatribes against the Federal Reserve. He says he supports a $190bn (£128bn) increase in the US defence budget. He even signed on to Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton's controversial letter that informed the leaders of Iran that Congress would not necessarily back President Barack Obama's nuclear programme negotiations.

This primary-friendly version of Mr Paul was on display on Tuesday morning, as he emphasised national security - a topic that consistently polls highly in the minds Republican voters. While he once again called for cuts to US foreign aid - to nations that chant "death to America" while receiving millions of dollars - he also stressed the importance of a strong military.

"We need a national defence robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies and nimble enough to defend our vital interests," he said.

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But although the crowd cheered Mr Paul's lines inside the hotel ballroom, outside the hotel the challenges facing Mr Paul - particularly on national security - are gathering like the storm clouds that pounded the city all morning.

On Tuesday an independent political group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America went on the air with a million-dollar advertising campaign in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It blasted the senator as being "wrong and dangerous" on foreign policy and - an even greater heresy for Republicans - siding with Mr Obama on Iran.

"The whole campaign we are about to undertake signifies the deep mistrust among conservatives about Paul and his views on Iran," conservative activist Scott Reed - who is spearheading the advertising blitz - told Bloomberg's Josh Rogin.

2016 runners and riders

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Image caption Clockwise from top left: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton

Only Cruz and Paul have formally declared but these are some of the names to watch:

  • early Republican frontrunner is Jeb Bush
  • but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could battle Bush for the party's centre ground
  • darling of the Tea Party is Texas Senator Ted Cruz
  • firebrand liberal Elizabeth Warren is championed by many in the Democratic Party
  • libertarian Rand Paul has his supporters - and enemies - among Republicans
  • Hillary Clinton will have learnt much from her failed campaign of 2008

Establishment politicians are also joining the fray, including two - former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - who may end up running for the Republican nomination as well.

"You know, Rand Paul and Barack Obama start from two very different ideological places," Mr Bolton said last month, "but they end up backing the same policies. And at the root of it, I think, is that both think American strength is provocative."

On a Sunday morning news show, Mr Graham quipped that every Republican would have a better Iran policy than Mr Obama - "except maybe Rand Paul".

From here Mr Paul begins a campaign blitz that will take him to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada - key states if he wants to have a shot at securing the nomination.

His supporters tout his extensive grass-roots network that stretches across the country. With Mr Paul officially in the race, that structure will now be put to the test.

Republican candidates in - and out - of the race

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