SIMI VALLEY, Ca. – He arrived in the dust cloud of a helicopter, and he put bullet after bullet into a target labeled "tax code." Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) short excursion before tonight's presidential debate proved that no distraction, no matter how fast or how loud, can shift the Republican conversation from Donald Trump.
Flanked by staff and a media retinue -- everyone from debate sponsor CNN to a crew from Gun.tv -- Paul stopped at a small gun range just minutes from the heavily secured Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Taran Butler, president of the eponymous Taran Tactical Innovations, offered the senator a home-built shotgun. Cameras rolling, Paul demurred, citing a bad shoulder, and Taran handed him an AR-15.
"Congressman [Dana] Rohrabacher shot it for us numerous times," he said.
"Good," said Paul. He got a short lesson in how to use the gun ("shove the magazine in bottom like a power tool battery"), as reporters asked various iterations of "how do you feel" or "what are you picturing when you shoot?'
"This is just a good way to relax," Paul said. "Unfortunately, metaphors sometimes get taken literally."
The senator took some shots -- dead aim -- before reluctantly accepting the shotgun. "The first time I shot skeet I was with some friends down in Florida," he explained. "They said, you’ve got to hold the shotgun tight. I’m not a hunter or a gun person, so the first shot I did hit me in the bicep."
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Paul, never the most orthodox of Republicans, was downright humble about his un-Ted-Nugent like hobbies. He simply wasn't going to pretend to be someone else. "I’m just glad they gave me the target like 10 yards out," he said, as he cycled through a 9 mm pistol, then a longer AR-15.
After putting some slugs in a bulletproof vest, Paul assembled the press for questions. One reporter asked him to reiterate his stance on the Iran deal (he wouldn't "tear it up" without seeing if Iran abided). The rest asked variations of the same Trump question.
Any messages for Donald Trump tonight?
How much of what you do tonight will be about you, and how much will be about Mr Trump?
Do you see it as your job to hold him to account?
What do you think accounts for Trump’s support?
One Fox News reporter tried to shake up the conversation with a metaphor. "Are you concerned about blowback?" asked John Roberts. "So many times, people have attacked Donald Trump, and like a bulletproof vest, it’s bounced off him and you’ve picked up a little shrapnel yourself."
Paul delivered the Trump analysis he'd been developing since the first debate. "If someone is presenting himself as something he’s not, it’s important that be exposed," he said. "You have to point out the faults of the leader if you want to be the leader... He was for the president’s stimulus plan, he was for Obamacare, he was for the bank bailout." Twice, Paul attacked Trump’s approval of the Kelo v. New London decision, the “eminent domain” ruling that is also the focus of one of the conservative Club for Growth’s new TV ads. And then it was back over the hill to the library, a quieter place with fewer spent bullet casings on the ground.