The glare of Iowa’s bright lights this week shows Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has work to do if he wants to win the GOP nomination.
The likely 2016 contender spent the first half of the week barnstorming the Hawkeye State, traveling 800 miles to meet with the divergent tribes that make up the state’s Republican base.
Paul spent much of his week trying to explain his view on Israeli foreign aid, at first claiming he’d never supported cutting it — which he has, repeatedly — before walking back those remarks.
He also faced some tough questions about his views of gay marriage, and delivered some late-night TV fodder when he rapidly exited a lunch, still chewing, when a “DREAMer” immigration activist confronted Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
As Republicans rush to the state this week, the unofficial kickoff of primary season, many state GOP observers say Paul’s missteps show he has work to do if he wants to remain one of the state’s frontrunners.
“This has been rough seas for Rand in Iowa this go-around. What he did here, it's not a deal-breaker but it shows you he might not be as prepared to run for president as he thinks he is. It's been a very rough week for him,” said Craig Robinson, a former state GOP political director and the editor of The Iowa Republican blog.
“While he's been here a lot before this is his first real dose of what a presidential race would feel like and how the media would treat you. It's eye-opening to anyone and I bet he's learned a lot,” said Robinson.
Paul’s biggest slip was saying that he’d never supported cutting foreign aid to Israel.
“We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel,” he told Yahoo News in Omaha, Neb., just before heading across the border to Iowa.
Paul had indeed called for phasing out foreign aid to Israel and every other country in 2011 and included that in his budget plan, though later budget proposals had included aid for the country. He later argued he was being taken out of context — and emphasized that he’s never targeted Israel over other countries.
The freshman senator also had to explain a hasty retreat from a lunch table with King when a pro-immigration reform activist confronted the border hawk.
In a video that went viral, Paul bolts from the table while still chewing immediately after activist Erika Andiola confronted King. Paul’s staff says he left because of a pre-scheduled interview with reporters, but the video quickly made the rounds on late-night television.
He also faced a number of questions on gay marriage, and not everyone was satisfied with his answer that he personally opposes gay marriage but believes it shouldn’t be legislated at the federal level. Some also weren’t happy with remarks he made to The New York Times that the party can’t “completely flip” on gay marriage because it would alienate southern social conservatives.
Some accuse Paul of adjusting his views to try to please all Republicans, trying to placate supporters who backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), while also making inroads with the state’s religious conservatives.
“It's been a very tough balancing act for him to keep his dad's base happy, take some stances the evangelicals don't typically support, and still reach out to them,” said Greg Baker, the political director of the socially conservative Iowa Family Leader. “It's eroded trust with both groups. … I've seen him speak a few times. He seems like he's pretty good on marriage or Israel when I see him and then I see him on TV and he contradicts himself.”
Others believe Paul needs to fine-tune his message while doing one thing his dad excelled at — clearly state his views and let the chips fall where they may.
“They need to stop worrying about doing so many public appearances, take a few months, and seriously understand the base of people whose votes they need to get, who they are, how to communicate with them. Because I don't think he understands that at all,” said Steve Deace, a popular Iowa conservative radio host based in Des Moines.
“You can't win a primary not saying anything. People just distrust you. These are all correctable errors, he just needs a team around him to help him do that. But Rand Paul as constructed will not win the Iowa caucuses.”
Some of those who backed Paul’s father feel the same way.
“A lot of people are concerned that he's not coming off as authentic as his father did. The real debate among liberty folks is whether his perceived lack of authenticity is just a campaign tactic or is it something we're going to see persist,” said Joel Kurtinitis, a former Ron Paul staffer and the outreach director of the libertarian group Liberty Iowa. “We're really waiting for someone to take that stand the way Ron did without any backtracking or lack of sureness in his statements.”
Many of the other 2016 potential candidates are heading to Iowa this weekend for the state fair and a Family Leader event that organizers say could have as many as 2,000 GOP activists in attendance. Other potential rivals in the first caucus state his week include Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Paul’s team, however, disputes that he had a rocky trip to Iowa.
“The week went very well,” said A.J. Spiker, a Paul staffer and former state party chairman. “It was a very positive, beneficial week both to Rand and to the party as a whole.”
Paul met with some of his father’s old backers on Tuesday and talked with more than a dozen conservative pastors not necessarily warm to him on Wednesday. He also stumped with all four House candidates and several local candidates and joined Gov. Terry Branstad (R), Iowa’s establishment power-broker, at one event.
While Paul had some fumbles, most say he hasn’t done irreparable harm, and that just showing up as often and early as he has been pays dividends for Iowans who highly prize personal time with candidates.
“I wouldn't count Rand Paul out yet. A lot of his statements have hurt him but he's also met with a lot of pastors this week and they have been able to ask him questions one-on-one and that helps. A lot of the other candidates are going to have to play catch-up with that type of effort,” said Baker.