The most perplexing Republican in the Senate may be Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Liberals shiver when they hear him taking a staunch no-tax-increase stance. Immigration exclusionists break out in hives when he says we should legalize the millions of illegal immigrants already here. And pro-Israel advocates are sharply divided on whether he should be marginalized and tagged with his father’s views or cautiously encouraged as his views mature.

As I found in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Paul differs from the caricature of conservatives. He is soft-spoken and self-deprecating, and he presents a very different persona than the “I’m a U.S. Senator” bombast one gets from many of his colleagues.

Rand Paul campaigning in 2010 (Alex Slitz)

Paul is candid, as usual, when it comes to the “fiscal cliff” negotiations: “I think [the White House would] just as soon go to the cliff.” He added matter of factly that he doesn’t see “any good results”; either we go over the cliff or we wind up with a deal that he says he’s probably not going to like.

Paul said, “The president is feeling his oats, still in campaign mode.” Meanwhile, we are still “lingering in the recession” and could relapse into it “if [President Obama] is so obstinate” as to demand huge tax hikes.

Paul said, “I am all in favor of simplifying the tax code” — so long as it is done along with lowering rates. In the past, he notes, lowering rates has generated more revenue while raising them sometimes has not. “It’s not a given if [Obama] raises rates he’ll get more revenues.” As many supply-siders have argued, Paul contends that lawmakers are missing the big issue – economic growth.

On the subject of sequestration, the Kentucky Republican makes the case that these defense cuts amount to a drop in the bucket. “Sequestration was $1.2 trillion over 10 years. And we will be adding $9 trillion over 10 years [in more spending]. Instead of spending 45 trillion over ten years we’ll spend 44 trillion,” Paul said.

He contends that “a lot of games are played with numbers,” and that while people’s “eyes glaze over,” they understand the difference between spending less and just not spending as much as you intended to increase.

Paul has long been a critic of military spending. He contends that the Pentagon budget has doubled over 10 years and we spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. “I think there is room for cutting,” he said, adding that he’d be willing to look instead at more cuts in domestic spending, including entitlement spending, if his colleagues would agree. That, however, he doubts.

Foreign aid is another topic on which Paul has made waves. However, in our conversation he expressed his views in a measured fashion.

He started by pointing to our deep debt: “We are spending a trillion or a trillion and a half we don’t have, including on foreign aid.” Rather than eradicating foreign aid entirely, though, he says that his objection is more focused. “We give it to countries burning the flag and shouting, ‘Death to America.’ ”

Nevertheless, the foreign aid bill he introduced would have allowed aid to Egypt, Paul said, if officials in Cairo “could prove they would defend our embassy.” He wants the Libyan government to turn over terrorists responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. And he insists that the Pakistani government release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who assisted the United States leading up to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Paul said that he has sought to take out about $25 billion of the $30 billion we spend on foreign aid, which would leave money for “our friends.” He added that he would be open to setting “universal rules” conditioning aid. “That’s actually a moderate position,” he said.

This is not the view of most members of Congress, and it doesn’t recognize that foreign aid amounts to a pittance in the overall budget, but neither can it be characterized as nutty. And at a time when Egypt and other countries’ behavior is antithetical to human rights and U.S. interests, he is right that foreign aid should be looked over.

On immigration, Paul parts company with those Republicans who argue against comprehensive reform. He says that, before selling the conservative message to Hispanics, Republicans need to make a move on immigration.

“They won’t listen to us on issues they might agree with us because they think we don’t like them, he said. “We should say up front we are not sending 12 million people home. Maybe then they will listen to us.”

He says he has no problem normalizing the status of those here illegally. “Honestly, we already have restrictions on green-card [holders] getting welfare,” he says about a common objection to legalization. He adds, “I still believe in having security” at the U.S. border. He said he would be amenable to “one big bill,” if it required border control in the first year, an independent report certified results and the remaining provisions were addressed the following year.

Finally, Paul has already endorsed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for reelection in 2014 and in fact has held several fundraisers on McConnell’s behalf.

In Part Two of our interview, Rand Paul talks about Israel and a major pro-Israel group responds.