AMES, Iowa — Sen. Rand Paul, nursing a cold, did not shake many hands on the first day of his swing through Iowa this weekend. Instead, he elbow-bumped activists as he made his way through crowds and hoarsely thanked them for their support.
The Republicans who showed up Friday at Paul’s rally did not mind. In a state where caucus-goers often demand warm interactions with presidential contenders, they were happy to hear Paul’s riffs on monetary policy and Montesquieu from a distance.
As Paul (Ky.) moves closer to a 2016 bid, he is betting that in a field of big personalities, his low-key style and atypical pitch — mixing snarky asides, dovish takes on foreign policy and a compassionate plea for criminal-justice reform — will set his candidacy apart.
“Just look at who’s here,” said David Fischer, a former Iowa GOP official, as he surveyed the crowd at Paul’s gathering Friday at a Des Moines winery. “He is actually bringing women, college students and people who are not white into the Republican Party.”
The challenge for Paul is whether his approach, which has echoes of his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, will enable him to do better than the elder Paul’s third-place finish in the 2012 GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa.
“The son is a little more mainstream,” said former Republican congressman Jim Leach, who represented eastern Iowa for 15 terms. “If he can stay there and play into the desire on the conservative side for someone new, he could find an opening.”
The latest poll of Iowa Republicans, conducted by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register, shows Paul in second place among potential GOP candidates. Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.), boosted by his breakout speech in late January at a conservative summit, narrowly leads with 15 percent. Paul is at 14 percent, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is at 10 percent.
For now, in this early stage of the primary scramble, Paul is focused on reviving his father’s political base in Iowa, which begins the primary process, by attacking an institution that has long frustrated the libertarian right: the Federal Reserve.
Before Paul took the stage at Jasper Winery, Liberty Iowa organizers played a video featuring archival clips of both Ron and Rand Paul delivering critiques of the central bank.
Minutes later, Paul, who last month introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, drew raucous applause when he warned its policies are undermining U.S. currency.
“Anybody here want to audit the Fed?” Paul said. “Anybody feel that the Fed is out to get us? They’re all over the TV! They’re going to be out there saying, ‘Oh, we can’t audit the Fed.’ What, are they too big to be audited? Too secret to be audited?”
Turning to civil liberties, where he has quarreled with hawkish Republicans, Paul chastised the National Security Agency for its surveillance tactics. “It’s none of their damn business what you do on your phone,” he said.
“Got to love it,” said Joey Gallagher, 22, a community organizer with stud earrings, as he nursed a honey-pilsner beer. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”
But the rest of Paul’s nascent stump speech signaled that as much as he wants to target his father’s lingering network, he is eager to be more than a long-shot ideologue.
Paul cited two liberals, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), during his Friday remarks and said he agrees with outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on curbing federal property seizures and softening sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders — all a nod to his efforts to cast himself as a viable national candidate who can build bipartisan relationships and expand his party’s political reach.
“Putting a kid in jail for 55 years for selling marijuana is obscene,” Paul said.
Paul’s trip comes after a rough week for the freshman senator and physician. He was at the middle of a national controversy over childhood vaccines after he discussed the possible health risks of inoculations and found himself under fire for a CNBC appearance during which he “shushed” a female interviewer.
Paul’s visit also comes amid speculation in Iowa Republican circles that one of his state-based advisers, former Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker, could hinder Paul’s chances because of Spiker’s strained relationships with allies of Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad (R), who has voiced concern about the Paul bloc’s influence.
Steve Grubbs, a Paul strategist in Iowa, defended Spiker in an interview and said Paul would not be making changes to his political team in spite of the calls from some party insiders for a shake-up.
“Our plan is to combine liberty voters with other Republican voters,” Grubbs said. “A.J. is part of that. And remember, no one goes through politics without picking up a few enemies. We’re going to proceed as planned and hopefully win, place or show next year.”
Craig Schoenfeld, an Iowa Republican consultant who guided George W. Bush’s victorious 2000 Iowa campaign, said Paul’s ambition to woo center-right Republicans will be tested by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has tapped David Kochel, a veteran Iowa operative, as his likely campaign manager.
Bush is scheduled to speak next month at an agricultural summit in Des Moines.
“The Bush factor is there,” Schoenfeld said. “The folks involved may have more gray hair but they’re ready to go to war for him in Iowa. Same with the people with [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie. The battle for that wing of the party is going to be fierce.”
Among former Ron Paul backers, there are pockets of unease about whether Rand Paul is moving too far to the center. Drew Ivers, who chaired Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa campaign, said he is “not sure” whether he will get behind the younger Paul in 2016.
“He is playing to the middle, rather than having the middle move toward him,” Ivers said. “I would like to see him do more to talk about small-government principles.”
Between stops, Paul shrugged off questions about his camp and its fundraising abilities.
On Saturday afternoon, Paul sat courtside at Iowa State University’s men’s basketball game at the Hilton Coliseum with Steve Sukup, a wealthy businessman who has endorsed him. Before the game, wearing a light-blue fleece under a navy jacket, he mingled at a private reception with Iowa State boosters and administrators, and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Even as he courted donors, Paul was careful to not veer far from his outsider persona. He parted with Sukup at halftime to meet with students — most wearing “big government sucks” stickers — at a campus game-watch, where he weighed in on constitutional rights and college costs before posing for a round of pictures.
Speaking earlier Saturday at Legends American Grill in Marshalltown, Paul showcased his unorthodox presentation, quoting French political philosopher Montesquieu as attendees ate waffles and eggs at the dimly lit sports bar, and then turned to foreign policy.
“Montesquieu said that when the executive branch begins to legislate, then a form of tyranny will ensue,” Paul said, referencing President Obama’s unilateral policy decisions, including the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
Criticizing former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the all-but-certain front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Paul referred to U.S. intervention in Libya as “Hillary’s war” and an “utter disaster” that has led to “jihadists roaming all across Libya. It’s a jihadist wonderland.”
“He isn’t real flamboyant,” said retiree Diane Cox, 69, as she left the restaurant. “A lot of the others, they give you more of a stir and get you going. But he is factual and talking about the terrible debt facing my grandchildren.”
In the afternoon, as he slowly stepped through Iowa State’s snow-covered parking lot, where his father four years ago participated in the Iowa GOP’s straw poll, Paul said he had fond memories of those past runs. But he believes he can win what Ron Paul never did: the presidential nomination.
“We used to have an ‘end the Fed’ dunk booth over there,” Paul said, pointing toward a nearby sidewalk. “People threw balls at Ben Bernanke in order to get someone in the tank.” After chuckling, he added: “If I run, I think we can attract people who weren’t attracted before.”