By Alexander Bolton - 02/03/15 06:00 AM EST
Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulLawmaker seeks to investigate Obama's foreign tax compliance law Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears GOP senators hit FBI on early probe of NY bombing suspect MORE (R-Ky.) cast himself as a regular Joe during an interview with The Hill conducted at 23,000 feet — in two coach seats on an American Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Dallas.
Flying coach is nothing new for Paul, the Tea Party favorite said. He’s logged tens of thousands of miles in coach in recent months as he’s flown around the country touting himself as a possible White House contender in 2016.
A flight attendant scolded one of his staffers for standing in the aisle while monitoring the senator’s interview.
Fellow travelers sitting in the same row or behind him viewed the commotion with a mix of bemused curiosity and irritation.
Paul and other Republicans eyeing the White House are working hard to make clear that they are not Mitt Romney, the wealthy businessman who was easily depicted as out of touch in his 2012 campaign.
“I walk to Wal-Mart and shop when I’m at Kentucky and home in Bowling Green. We go to Target, Wal-Mart, T.J. Maxx like other people. We look for bargains. We drive our own cars. We really don’t put on any special airs,” Paul said.
“When you’re part of your community,” he said, “you kind of know what your community is upset about.”
Paul’s regular-guy push comes as other Republican contenders seek to identify themselves with the middle class. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) recently bragged at the Iowa Freedom Summit about discount shopping at Kohl’s.
“Republicans, who have been seen as the party of high rollers, have decided to put on good, plain gabardine,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Paul says his ability to relate to everyday Americans is a key difference between him and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner who took more than 200 privately chartered flights during her eight-year Senate career, according to Bloomberg.
“Some of the people who’ve run, we won’t name any names — but maybe like Hillary Clinton — have become a little distant from the people. When we heard that she makes $200,000 an hour giving speeches and that she’s got her own chauffeur and hasn’t driven herself in 17 years, it’s going to be harder for her to sell this great message that somehow she relates to and is concerned about the average person,” he said.
Clinton has come under fire in recent months for accepting large speaking fees and requiring rock-star contracts that call for private jets, presidential suites, room-temperature water, hummus and crudités.
Paul describes himself as a regular dad. The 52-year-old senator and opthamologist notes that one of his sons delivers pizza in college to keep money in his pocket and that it’s not always easy to pay for his kids’ education.
Spending time at airports instead of with his family is a strain, he admits.
“I wish it were like ‘Star Trek’ where there was a transporter, you could go instantaneously from one place to another,” he said, noting it recently took him 11 hours to get to a western destination.
“The hours do add up, the time away from home adds up,” he said.
So do the frustrations.
On the early morning return flight to Washington, Paul was wedged in a throng of passengers jamming the aisle of an American Airlines 737 sitting on the tarmac at Reagan Washington National Airport.
He sighed when the captain announced another five-minute delay and resumed reading Uncle Sam Can’t Count, a book about the federal government’s track record of fostering innovation.
Paul passes the hours by reading nonfiction and policy-oriented books or leafing through articles and briefing papers. On the flight to Dallas he focused on an article about California’s Proposition 47, which reduced sentences for drug possession and nonviolent property crimes.
He read more fiction in medical school, he said, though he still picks up the occasional novel. He’s a fan of Act of War, a thriller by Brad Thor.
When the drink cart comes rolling down the aisle, Paul usually orders cranberry juice mixed with sparkling water, a habit passed along to him by his wife, Kelley.
To spend more time with his family, he sometimes takes them on political trips, such as his recent jaunt to Nevada, where they spent time in Las Vegas and Reno.
As a senator, Paul is able to skip some of the hassles of flying commercial. On the way to Dallas, he got to jump to the front of the chaotic boarding line at Reagan National.
But the aggravation of passing through the Transportation Security Administration’s checkpoints can’t be escaped.
He says the agency has gotten better, but still needs to improve.
“Ideally what would happen is instead of 90 percent being in the long line and 10 percent being in the short line, we put more and more people in the Trusted Traveler program,” he said.
Paul’s trip to Texas was a successful one. He touted in speeches there that outgoing state GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri was joining his campaign as a senior adviser. The endorsement from Munisteri attracted positive media coverage for Paul, who is now seen as a major contender for the 2016 Republican nomination. But winning the GOP nod will require a lot more work, and many more miles in the air.