Rand Paul’s ascent brings new scrutiny ahead of possible 2016 campaign

Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) rapid ascent to prominence has not been entirely smooth, and Republicans and supporters alike warn that he’ll have to improve his message and the way he communicates it if he hopes to launch a credible campaign in 2016.

Paul faced a rocky April, with a widely-criticized speech to Howard University, followed by a call for restraint on immigration reform that baffled some supporters and culminating with him appearing to contradict his prominent opposition to domestic drone strikes.

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His stumbles have not yet punctured Paul’s trial balloon — a recent poll gave him a slight lead in the Republican field in significant early-primary state New Hampshire. But some political watchers say Paul will have to focus his message over the next three years to maintain that lead.

“Rand Paul is from a more shoot-from-the-hip style, and there’s an appeal to that. But even when you're speaking bluntly, you still need to be cognizant that your message still reflects your brand,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist.

“Rand Paul established his brand in a specific way and he got off-base this week.”

The backlash from supporters over his drone comments was immediate, though, it barely made it past libertarian forums online during a busy news week. But the misstep on drones is not a gaffe that’s likely to derail his future plans – coming three years, rather than three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses.

Paul suggested in an interview that armed drones could be used domestically against common criminals. 

“I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on,” he said. “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him.

“But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone, and they want to watch your activities,” Paul continued.

The comments appeared to contradict his stance opposing domestic use of drones, which gained national attention during a 12-hour filibuster he lead on the Senate floor.

But following the backlash from supporters, Paul said he had not changed his position and said he did not believe armed drones should be used in “normal crime situations.”

But the controversy over Paul’s comments was not entirely surprising, given the candidate’s history. 

During his 2010 Senate run, Republicans in Washington, D.C. dispatched staff to help patch up damage done after an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in which Paul criticized the Civil Rights Act.

Those 2010 comments came back to haunt him at Howard University, where he said, in response to a question on the landmark civil rights bill: “I’ve never wavered in my support” for the act — a statement that many critics said was false.

And he’s had smaller flubs over the past month, none of which gained much attention when they happened, but all of which could make fodder for an entire news cycle during a presidential campaign. 

On CNN, Paul said he believes there can be “thousands of exceptions” to a ban on abortion, and on the Christian Broadcasting Network he said that opponents of the federal Defense of Marriage Act have “lost that battle.”

Part of Paul’s challenge is universal to nearly all presidential aspirants who have never run nationwide: The sometimes surprising level of scrutiny that comes with being a national political figure.

An aide to Paul said the senator is aware that he “may not have articulated [his position on drones] as well as he should have or had in the past,” and has evaluated his wording in hopes of preventing it from happening again.

“It’s less a question of, will those things happen, and more, do you learn from them and not fall into a pattern of them happening over and over again?” the aide said.

By the end of the 2012 campaign, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s staff had become astute at the art of defusing a gaffe before it could gain traction, but that took months of experience responding to the candidates occasionally controversial comments.

Though Paul has not been shy about his 2016 plans, his staff hasn’t yet set up a presidential-level war-room, and when the drone comments gained traction — buoyed by a prominent post on Drudge Report Tuesday — staff had to scramble to respond to the situation.

Observers largely agree his staff’s response was quick and skillful, and went far to prevent the controversy from gaining much traction. Paul’s staff and supporters have also been working to frame the controversy as created by liberal bloggers out to undermine his aspirations, noting it began largely with a post on MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s blog.

But the Paul aide admitted that “some of it is a learning process for the team,” as much as it is for Paul.

“It's clearly something that as a team, the broader Rand Paul team, what we take away from this is an understanding that we have to be — he has to have a greater understanding of the fact that what he's saying is being watched very carefully and is consonant with someone who is sitting in a position with polling coming out showing him in a lead in New Hampshire,” the aide said.

The aide’s comments are reflective of what Paul supporters say is a silver lining to the situation: It’s the result of his prominence and importance on the national stage.

The aide added that Paul is a quick learner, and has been examining his comments to make sure he doesn’t encounter a similar situation in the future.

“What he is taking away from it is that, given the level of scrutiny, is apparently everything he's saying, his sentences are being deconstructed by people on the left. He has to be very careful in structuring his wording,” the aide said.

Gaffes can be fatal — as  former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) showed when his Senate bid was derailed by comments on rape — but they don’t have to be.

An aide to a former gaffe-prone Republican presidential aspirant said that voters will forgive the occasional misstep.

“With voters, there’s more of a concern about the candidate’s demeanor,” the aide said.

Indeed, both former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Romney made it the farthest in the 2012 Republican presidential contest, and neither exhibited constant message discipline.

A gaffe-prone candidate, however, does increase the pressure to perform in other aspects of a campaign.

“I think it ultimately comes down to how much money you raise. If you have a considerable amount of money, you can convince people it doesn’t matter,” the aide added.

Paul is likely to have little difficulty in that avenue. But his misstep on drones this week does illustrate a unique problem that Paul alone among the current field of potential contenders will have to tackle before 2016.

Paul is considered viable going into the next presidential race in part because he’s long had support from two traditionally loud and active grassroots groups in the GOP: Libertarians and Tea Partiers.

But as Paul strives to appeal to more mainstream conservatives, or social conservatives, a wing of the party with strong influence in the early primaries, he may clash with his base. The drone comments may have signaled Paul’s attempt to reflect a widespread sentiment that complicated his original statements.

Preston Bates, head of the libertarian Liberty for All PAC, said that Paul’s unlikely to lose libertarian supporters unless another credible libertarian candidate joins the field. But he noted that Paul may ultimately have to choose sides on certain issues going forward.

“I think to some degree, there are some issues, whether they be social or otherwise, where he'll have to decide: ‘Am I going to be more libertarian or am I going to appeal to a socially conservative, pro-fiscal restraint Republican Party?’”