Rand Paul Says He’s ‘More of a Target’ Now That He’s Topping the Polls

In an interview, the Kentucky Republican speaks out about his rivals, the NSA, and what to do next in Ukraine.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) takes the stage before addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
March 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Rand Paul is rid­ing high. He pock­eted a straw poll win at the re­cent Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence. He won an­oth­er straw poll in New Hamp­shire. And, per­haps most sig­ni­fic­ant, he tops the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an field in an early CNN/ORC In­ter­na­tion­al poll.

“I don’t know wheth­er it’s good luck or it’s bad luck,” the Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It makes you more of a tar­get, I guess.”

“I tell people it’s bet­ter than be­ing last,” he joked in an in­ter­view in the lobby of the Olympic Club in down­town San Fran­cisco. As he leaned back in his chair, his suit pants re­vealed more of his brown, cow­boy-style leath­er boots. “It’s bet­ter than not be­ing no­ticed.”

There is little chance of that. His grow­ing polit­ic­al perch brings ad­ded at­ten­tion and scru­tiny to his every ut­ter­ance.

Paul will use that pres­id­en­tial-sized plat­form on Wed­nes­day to speak out at UC Berke­ley against the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance prac­tices. While in the Bay Area, he has a series of closed-door meet­ings, in­clud­ing with pro­spect­ive donors.

The NSA is one of the is­sues Paul hopes to use to woo young­er voters to the Re­pub­lic­an fold in 2016 — one of his top polit­ic­al pri­or­it­ies. Paul said his goal is to send a mes­sage to stu­dents “that there are people in the Re­pub­lic­an Party who do want to de­fend your pri­vacy.”

“I think they, like me, don’t un­der­stand why the gov­ern­ment would have ac­cess to their [phone] re­cords,” Paul said.

Top­ping a na­tion­al pres­id­en­tial poll is rar­efied air for any politi­cian, par­tic­u­larly a first-term sen­at­or. It’s a po­s­i­tion of prom­in­ence that Paul’s fath­er, former Rep. Ron Paul, nev­er achieved in his mul­tiple pres­id­en­tial bids. Not that the young­er Paul is rub­bing it in. “I haven’t talked to him yet,” he said. “I’ve been trav­el­ling.”

Es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans of­ten dis­missed the eld­er Paul as too far out of line with the GOP main­stream on for­eign policy (among oth­er is­sues) to ever be the party’s nom­in­ee. It’s a cri­ti­cism that the young­er Paul ap­pears eager to tackle.

Paul took a veiled swipe at Sen. Ted Cruz — the oth­er con­ser­vat­ive seen atop the po­ten­tial GOP 2016 field — in a sharply worded op-ed that ac­cused rivals of wrongly wrap­ping their views in with Re­agan’s leg­acy, and he sug­ges­ted his non-in­ter­ven­tion­ist policies are in the his­tor­ic­al main­stream.

Paul at­trib­uted cri­ti­cism of his po­s­i­tions to his re­cent polit­ic­al suc­cesses. “You be­come a tar­get where people want to char­ac­ter­ize who you are, and I’m not really con­tent with let­ting oth­ers char­ac­ter­ize who I am,” he said. “Be­cause your op­pon­ents gen­er­ally don’t char­ac­ter­ize you in a fa­vor­able fash­ion.”

So how would Paul handle a newly ag­gress­ive Rus­sia? The sen­at­or who joined the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee last year called Tues­day for trade sanc­tions against Mo­scow for its in­cur­sion in­to Crimea. “I think if Putin and Rus­sia act like a rogue na­tion, they should be isol­ated,” Paul said.

But he would not say wheth­er that meant stronger or great­er sanc­tions than Pres­id­ent Obama has pro­posed. “I don’t know if I can ne­ces­sar­ily char­ac­ter­ize it that way,” he said.

“What I would say is that Crimea gets 80 per­cent of their wa­ter, their elec­tri­city, and gas from the part of Ukraine that is above them. They’re at risk. [Putin] has a great deal of risk of los­ing elec­tri­city, gas, and wa­ter to the sec­tion that he’s an­nexed,” Paul said. He also would not say if that wa­ter and power should be shut off. “Ukraine has to make that de­cision,” he said.

Paul did say he be­lieves Putin “mis­cal­cu­lates” his odds of suc­cess. The sen­at­or said that by tak­ing the typ­ic­ally Rus­sia-sup­port­ing Crimean voters of out the Ukrain­i­an elect­or­ate Putin is ac­tu­ally “push­ing Ukraine in­to the West, and so I think he’s cut­ting off his nose to spite his face.”

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