Savannah Guthrie fight casts shadow on Rand Paul's debut

Rand PaulRand PaulTrump's CIA chief clears Senate Overnight Defense: Trump nominates Air Force secretary | Senate clears CIA director | Details on first drone strike under Trump Dems blast Trump plans for deep spending cuts MORE’s first day on the campaign trail was marred by a high-profile fight with NBC “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie that raised questions about whether he is ready for primetime. 

Video of Paul telling Guthrie how she should do her job went viral on social media, placing his attitude toward female reporters in the spotlight.

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The Kentucky GOP senator was ultimately forced to give a partial mea culpa, even as he sought to dispel the notion that his earlier pushback was sexist. 

But the damage may have already been done for Paul.

“If this were the first time this had happened, that would be one thing,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. “But I’m not sure it is all that clear to Rand Paul that, when you’re running for president, it is not a good thing if you launch into a diatribe.”

The incident with Guthrie was reminiscent of a February interview with CNBC’s Kelly Evans when the senator shushed the TV host and told her to “calm down.”

By Wednesday evening, a less combative Paul was telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “I think I’ve been universally short-tempered and testy with both male and female reporters.”

He added, “I will have to get better at holding my tongue, but I think I'm pretty equal opportunity.”

In the earlier appearance with Guthrie, Paul interrupted her, yet accused her of “talking over” him. He also charged “Why don’t you ask me a question of whether I have changed my opinion?”

Guthrie’s name became a trending topic on social media and the mocking hashtag #Randsplaining — a pun on the term “mansplaining,” which refers to condescending male behavior — got widespread use.

Negative media attention came just as fast, with The Washington Post asking whether Paul had a “problem with female interviewers.”

The criticism came from Republicans, too. 

“If Rand Paul is really ready for primetime, a good way to show that is not mansplaining to @SavannahGuthrie when she’s simply doing her job,” Meghan McCain, a media commentator and daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), tweeted

“Pro-tip: lecturing the host of The Today Show (@SavannahGuthrie no less!) is not a way to endear yourself to that show's audience,” GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson wrote on the social media site. 

But even those who argued that Paul’s attitude toward female journalists wasn’t sexist acknowledged that the mere fact of that question being asked was a bad thing.

“I thought that he just came across as kinda overly grouchy and a little bit aggressive, unnecessarily. But I’m not sure it’s fair to link it [to the February CNBC interview] as ‘This is how he treats women,’ ” said Katie Packer Gage, who served as deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney during his 2012 White House bid.

Gage said it would be unfair if the flap was portrayed as indicative of Republican attitudes to women, but admitted that the incident could be construed that way. 

“We just can’t make mistakes like that,” she said. “We can’t be seen as disrespectful or bullying or even as a little bit sharper, because it is going to be framed as a Republican problem.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Paul went on to show some irritation with a male reporter over questions about his position on abortion. 

The Associated Press’s Philip Elliott interviewed Paul on the subject and wrote that the senator “grew testy when pressed in the interview on the questions of exceptions. ‘I gave you about a five-minute answer. Put in my five-minute answer,’ he said.”

Asked again about abortion by NH1's Paul Steinhauser, Paul shot back, “Why don't we ask the [Democratic National Committee], is it OK to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus?” 

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz sought to keep the media fire around Paul burning, releasing a statement that emphasized her support for abortion rights, included a couple of rhetorical questions for Paul and concluded, “I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ‘shushing’ me.”

Some observers played down the potential damage so early in the 2016 cycle. 

“You don’t want to be a punching bag for these people,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “Is this going to hurt Rand Paul with his voters or the people he’s trying to reach? Not really. Is it going to hurt him with liberals? They dislike him as it is.”

But other independent observers said the danger for Paul was especially acute on the issue of his demeanor toward women.

“I don’t think an incident on the ‘Today’ show with Savannah Guthrie makes or breaks a candidate,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government and the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “But if it becomes part of a bigger narrative that Rand Paul doesn’t respect women, it could become pretty damning.”