Paul’s office declined a request for an interview.
The Kentucky opthalmologist-turned-senator represents a brand of inclusiveness at a time when the party is desperate to reach beyond its base. Along with his father, he also has an ability to excite young people that no one else in the party can match. In March, his 13-hour filibuster to protest the Obama administration’s drone warfare tactics electrified the blogosphere on both the left and right, with Twitter registering 450,000 tweets using the hashtag #standwithrand.
“If we want to win nationally again, we will have to reach out to a diverse nation and welcome African Americans, Asians, Latinos into our party. When the Republican Party looks like the rest of America, we will win again,” Paul said in a well-received speech on March 31 at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. “When we have people with tattoos and without tattoos, with ties and without ties, with suits and in blue jeans, then we win nationally.”
Paul’s outreach efforts have not been unvarnished successes. He was lampooned last month, for instance, for giving an awkward presentation about the Republican Party’s role in the civil rights struggle before an audience of African American students at Howard University.
But what impressed many was the fact that a Republican went to Howard at all.
“His audience was the outside world, and [his message was] the fact that he showed up. The easy thing would be not to go,” said former congressman J.C. Watts (Okla.), one of the few prominent black Republican lawmakers.
Watts said he recently met with Paul to discuss working together on their mutual interest in changing mandatory sentencing laws that both believe are disproportionately harsh on African Americans.
“Rand Paul is willing to admit that’s a real issue. That’s something conservatives often don’t want to do is admit the reality of the problem,” Watts said. “You don’t have to abandon your conservative values to admit there’s a problem.”
Watts acknowledged that his perception of Paul has changed. He compared his reaction to the old tagline of late-night television host Arsenio Hall: “Things that make you go, ‘Hmm.’ ”
When Paul won his party’s nomination in 2010 — on the strength of tea party support, and over the establishment pick backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — the Republican Jewish Coalition, which includes many of the party’s biggest fundraisers, was so horrified that it took the unusual step of opposing a Republican.
At the time, RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks said Paul was “outside the comfort level of a lot of people in the Jewish community, and in many ways, outside of where the Republican Party is on many issues.”
But a thaw may be in the offing, after a meeting last week with the organization’s board of directors.
“There were some pleasant surprises,” Brooks said. “While there may be areas of disagreement, he is very, very different — and certainly different with regard to his father.”
Although Paul persists in wanting to end foreign aid, for example, he described that as an eventual goal, and talked of “putting Israel in a different category” from that of hostile countries, Brooks said.
Lined up for 2016?
In recent months, Paul has schmoozed major Republican contributors at events that included an April conference in California sponsored by mega-donor brothers Charles and David Koch and a gathering of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s financial backers in Utah this month.
He also has been making appearances in early presidential primary states — and in nontraditional venues for Republicans, such as libertarian-minded Silicon Valley.
At this point, the recent political phenom Paul most resembles may be one from the other party — former Vermont governor Howard Dean, also a doctor, whose briefly front-running 2004 Democratic presidential campaign excited passions and threatened to upend the establishment, but ultimately crumbled to make way for a more conventional nominee.
For Paul, too, the question ultimately may be whether he has the discipline and the seasoning to go the distance.
But for now, he remains a figure of singular intrigue, no longer marginalized by his party — or dismissed by the opposition.
The current cover of the left-of-center New Republic magazine features a black-and-white image shot by the edgy portrait photographer Platon. “The Real Rand Paul (Can’t Be Trusted),” it warns. The fingers on his left hand are crossed.