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
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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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