By Alexander Bolton - 04/23/14 07:16 AM EDT
Can Sen. Rand Paul really become the 45th president?
His curly hair and slight frame aren’t a Hollywood casting agent’s idea of a commander in chief. But the freshman Republican senator from Kentucky rejects established norms; he’s on a declared mission to redefine the presidency and his own party.
Many other Republicans are nervous about Paul’s rising stock, much more than they were about the presidential bids of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
A CNN/ORC International poll last month showed Paul leading a field of Republican presidential contenders among Republicans and independents who favor the GOP nationwide. He garnered 16 percent support among those groups, compared to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who garnered 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
Paul won the presidential survey at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in New Hampshire and the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Even so, there are some in GOP circles who say they don’t take Paul seriously.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter said Paul, who’s about 5 feet 8 inches tall, can’t be president because he’s “as tall as my iPod.”
“Generally, the taller candidate wins,” said Robert Denton Jr., an expert in political communication at Virginia Tech.
But Denton added that voters’ criteria have evolved over the years and now a candidate’s ability to project empathy is as important as radiating authority and competence.
“He actually does have kind of an everyday-person appearance about him,” he said.
Paul, 51, told The Hill several years ago that he cuts his own hair, which liberal comic Bill Maher once compared to a Chia Pet. Gayle King of CBS asked him during an interview if he was trying out a new hairstyle after he showed up on camera right after taking a shower.
His fashion sense has also been ridiculed. Senate aides snickered when he showed up at the Capitol wearing a black mock turtleneck under a sports coat.
Veteran Republican operatives call Paul the Tea Party’s dream candidate and acknowledge he could win the Republican nomination given the important role conservative activists play in that process. Paul has inherited a committed group of activist supporters from his father and has worked to appeal to mainstream Republicans more than his dad ever did.
The real measuring stick for Paul, and any for GOP White House hopeful, is whether he or she can beat Hillary Clinton.
In a general election Paul would have to defend his proposals to raise the Social Security eligibility age and eliminate capital gains taxes. He would also have to fend off questions about his 2010 statement that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was wrong to prohibit businesses from discriminating against customers and his 1990s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
“He’s never had to defend these views. At some point in a debate with the Democrats, he’ll have to defend these views,” said a senior House Republican aide.
Paul revved up conservatives during the April recess by defending Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his standoff with federal authorities over his cattle grazing on protected land. But some Republicans think Paul is too quick to jump onto fringe causes.
Paul held up John Brennan’s nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency last year with a 13-hour filibuster warning of the danger of drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil.
“If there’s a nut movement in the country that he hasn’t found, please call me. He’s now getting involved in the sagebrush matter with Mr. Bundy,” said the GOP staffer. “I worry about a lot of things, but my biggest concern isn’t that Barack Obama is going to take me out at Starbucks with a drone.”
An aide to Paul retorted: “Anybody who underestimates the power of the emerging Rand Paul movement is making a big mistake. The pundit class and establishment hacks said Rand Paul could not win a Senate primary — he did.
“He has no political fear and leads by example. Politicians and pundits who talk down Rand Paul’s leadership are the same elites who have not had a good record of picking winners in the past, so it would be wise to stop listening to them.”
Paul has resonated with young independent voters in a way that few Republicans can match. He received a standing ovation when he railed against government surveillance of cellphones during a speech last month at the University of California at Berkeley, historically a liberal hotbed.
Last year Paul spoke to students at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., and the NAACP plans to invite him to speak at the group’s national conference in July.
“He’s got a clear base in the party as demonstrated by every poll you read. I think he has broadened that base and continues to broaden it. It’s really good for the party to have him out there talking to constituencies that quite frankly we have not spent much time with,” said Ron Kaufman, who served as White House political director under former President George H.W. Bush.
Kaufman downplayed questions about Paul’s appearance, noting that Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, and John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, looked “very presidential.”
“He comes across as a very honest, direct and sincere economic conservative with a libertarian bent,” he said. “That combination of qualities is going to be very appealing to a lot of voters. As much as the country is anti-Washington in 2012, it will be far more so in 2016.”
Paul will encounter stiff opposition from powerful kingmakers in the Republican Party.
John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush, recently blasted Paul’s Iran policy as “incoherent.”
Vin Weber, an experienced hand in GOP presidential politics who served as a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign, said, “I think the business community is going to have a hard time swallowing [Paul].”
Paul declared this month “corporate welfare should once and for all be ended” and has pushed legislation to shrink the Export-Import Bank.
Weber pointed out that the business community is “not heavily ideological.”
“They want government to be relatively market oriented. They don’t want government to be crusading against big business or government’s relationship with big business,” he said.
That said, Weber added, “I think he’s definitely for real.”
Paul dismayed many conservative activists by endorsing the reelection of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), whom they view as a personification of the GOP establishment in Washington. But should McConnell win in November, Paul will have a powerful friend in the GOP leader who could try to convince the party’s powerbrokers to back him.