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Sen. Rand Paul aggressively courting evangelicals to win over GOP establishment

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Earlier this spring, Sen. Rand Paul and his wife, Kelley, invited a crew from the Christian Broadcasting Network into their Kentucky home for what turned into two full days of reality TV. In a half-hour special, “At Home With Rand Paul,” the couple are seen bird-watching in the woods, going to McDonald’s and, especially, talking about religion — their belief in traditional marriage and the senator’s call for a “spiritual cleansing” in America.

The show was an unusual moment for Paul, who has gained fame as a live-and-let-live tea-party hero closely aligned with the libertarian movement inspired by his father, former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) — and not as a social conservative.

For the past few months, though, Paul has aggressively courted evangelicals, not only with the CBN special but also with a trip to Israel, numerous events with pastors and a handful of appearances in Iowa this weekend.

Paul’s play for evangelical support is part of a broader effort by the rookie senator to court the Republican establishment — much of which views him with suspicion — and become a mainstream political player in a way his father never was. The younger Paul, for instance, does not call himself a libertarian, but rather a “libertarian Republican.”

As he openly considers a run for president in 2016, Paul’s rebranding effort is a test of his political skills as well as the state of the Republican Party. For the senator, the question is whether he can win over the establishment without upsetting his tea party base. For the GOP, Paul again raises the question of whether anyone can gain the trust of both sides.

The first step for Paul is to make clear who he is and who he is not. For instance, he embraces support for Israel and does not, as Ron Paul did during a memorable moment in a 2011 debate, deliver impassioned defenses for letting people use heroin if they want.

At a lunch Friday with about a dozen evangelical pastors in a Cedar Rapids hotel, the younger Paul assured the group that he disagrees with libertarians who support legalizing drugs. When one pastor inquired about ideological ties between Paul and his father, the senator asked that he be judged as his own man.

Several pastors who attended the meeting said they came away impressed, though some remained unconvinced. “I don’t know that my concern has gone away, but I appreciated how he responded to the question,” said the Rev. Clegguart Mitchell, senior pastor of the Leon Bible Church in Leon, Iowa.

In an interview a day before his Iowa trip, Paul, 50, also tried to make clear just what kind of politician he is. “To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people,” he said. “Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ ”

Paul said he believes in freedom and wants a “virtuous society” where people practice “self-restraint.” Yet he believes in laws and limits as well. Instead of advocating for legalized drugs, for example, he pushes for reduced penalties for many drug offenses.

“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” he said. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The rollout of the new Paul brand continued Friday night in Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, where he headlined a sold-out Republican Party dinner and drew repeated applause from GOP activists.

Visiting key states, groups

Paul’s busy schedule includes stops in two other crucial presidential primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina. A May 20 appearance with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in New Hampshire aims to help the party connect with Paul’s libertarian and tea party base.

Later in May, Paul plans to deliver a formal address at the Ronald Reagan Library in California laying out his vision for the future of the party.

He will also hold sessions with evangelical pastors in several states, similar to the one in Iowa on Friday afternoon.

Some of those same pastors started to get to know Paul in January during a tour of Christian holy sites in Israel. The trip included clergy members and activists — including the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party — from states with early influence in the presidential primaries.

Some who traveled with Paul, a Methodist, said they engaged in deep conversations with him about the Bible and his faith. Several of the pastors said they are still assessing the senator’s views.

“Straight libertarianism has nothing Christian about it,” said pastor Brad Sherman of the Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa, a participant in the Israel trip. “I know a lot of people attribute him to be a libertarian. My impression so far is that he’s not as libertarian as possibly his father was, but I’d like to explore that more.”

Sherman got that chance Friday when he joined other clergy members at the Cedar Rapids lunch to pose pointed questions to Paul. He said he came away liking what he heard. “He made it very clear that he does not support legalization of drugs like marijuana and that he supports traditional marriage,” Sherman said.

David Lane, a longtime organizer of evangelical pastors and voters, who orchestrated the Israel trip and the Friday lunch, said Paul was seeking to demonstrate that he can be a comfortable fit for Christian conservatives despite the more unconventional views of many of his most fervent supporters.

“He’s closer to our philosophy than he is to what I would define as the hyper-libertarian position,” Lane said.

Outlining foreign policy

The Israel trip served a dual purpose, drawing Paul closer to evangelicals, who identify with the Jewish state and push for strengthened U.S. aid to Israel, and giving him a chance to separate his foreign policy views from those of his father, who is a critic of U.S. financial aid to Israel and other countries.

In meetings with Israeli officials and citizen groups, Paul reiterated his support for the country. In a foreign policy address later at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he called for curbing military aid to nations, such as Egypt, where people demonstrate against the United States, part of what he said should be a “more restrained” foreign policy.

Paul’s moves on foreign policy are meant to show that he can fit into the GOP mainstream, even though he gained national attention in March with a 13-hour Senate floor filibuster challenging President Obama’s drone policies. Paul has also continued to criticize fellow Republicans, who he says are often too willing to dispatch troops and engage in war.

“I’m a realist,” he said in his February Heritage Foundation speech, “not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.”

Paul waves off any suggestion that he is seeking to step out from his father’s policy shadow.

“Not everybody has a famous family member, but everybody creates their own way as they become an adult,” he said. “I’m almost an adult at 50.”

Still, Paul’s family ties lend clear advantages, giving the senator from Kentucky a built-in national network of energized backers. Ron Paul’s campaigns developed effective strategies to mobilize activists, and his organization mastered the art of the “money bomb” to raise large sums online through thousands of small donations.

The advocacy group affiliated with the elder Paul, the Campaign for Liberty, which has an extensive e-mail list and network of supporters, is a stalwart ally of Rand Paul.

The group promoted the #standwithrand Twitter hashtag during Paul’s March filibuster. And it stepped in at a touchy moment in April, helping to publicize a clarification issued by the senator after some accused him of backing away from his opposition to the use of drones against American citizens when he told a Fox Business interviewer that “I don’t care” if a drone or a police officer kills an armed robber. Paul’s statement the next day, posted on the Campaign for Liberty Facebook page with a link to his official Web site, said that his comments “left the mistaken impression that my position on drones had changed. Let me be clear: It has not.”

Gearing up for next election

Meanwhile, Paul is moving to shore up his political organization.

His closest political strategist, Doug Stafford, resigned last week as chief of staff at Paul’s Senate office, moving to head Rand PAC.

Stafford said in an interview that fundraising and other operations are gearing up, both at Rand PAC and at Paul’s 2016 Senate reelection operation. He said the organizations will work aggressively in an area that was not available to the elder Paul, “which is the ability to reach out to high-dollar, traditional fundraising. . . . That’s something that we’ll be focusing on into next year.”

To that end, the senator’s Reagan Library trip will include meetings in Silicon Valley with tech industry executives, some of whom see Paul as an ally because of his opposition to Internet taxation and regulation. Paul aides see the tech industry, which heavily backed Obama’s campaigns, as a potential source of campaign donations for the senator or other Republicans.

Still, much of Paul’s focus through the spring and summer will be on introducing himself to core Republican groups.

His approach was evident in the full access he and his family granted to Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent David Brody and a TV crew at their Bowling Green, Ky., home. The network is popular with evangelical voters, and the appearance offered Paul and his wife, who have three sons, a chance to present themselves as an all-American family.

Kelley talked about her reliance on her faith during difficult times. Rand said he composts “because I care about the environment.”

On marriage, a matter in which many libertarians believe the government should have no role, Paul used the CBN interview to lay out a more careful position.

He said he’s not ready to “give up on” the traditional family unit. But he added that it is a mistake for conservatives to support a federal ban on same-sex marriage, saying, “We’re going to lose that battle because the country is going the other way right now.”

“If we’re to say each state can decide, I think a good 25 or 30 states still do believe in traditional marriage, and maybe we allow that debate to go on for another couple of decades and see if we can still win back the hearts and minds of people,” he said.

Paul said he would take about a year to decide whether to run for president. In the meantime, he said, he is happy to stoke the speculation, if only to give himself a bigger platform.

Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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