Rivals lash Rand Paul on security

Republican presidential contenders are beginning to go after Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE, sensing that the Kentucky senator’s national security positions could become a liability with GOP primary voters.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ripped into Paul this week for his statements about terrorist threats and government surveillance.

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Christie accused Paul of siding with the “criminal” leaker Edward Snowden, while Jindal declared the Kentuckian unfit to be commander in chief because of a statement he made blaming GOP hawks for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

GOP strategists say Paul has left himself vulnerable with the Republican base by crusading against National Security Agency surveillance and bashing fellow Republicans for arming Syrian rebels.

“The reason that they’re going after Rand Paul is, they feel like Rand Paul’s views were more popular and more on the ascendancy a couple years ago than they are today,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations who now serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“He’s doubling down on these views. He’s doing filibusters and a lot of television talk shows trying to make the case that the Patriot Act and the NSA are infringing on civil liberties and that this is a tremendous threat to the country. I don’t think that’s where most Republican primary voters are.”

Christie timed his comments ahead of a five-state tour planned next month to prepare for the launch of his own presidential campaign.

“Christie’s target base of voters is in the center of the party, the more establishment voters,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide. “He’s trying to raise his profile by being the most strident in attacking Paul and hurt Paul with the more middle-of-the road voters.”

A nationwide poll commissioned this month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 58 percent of likely Republican voters want to modify the NSA’s surveillance program, while 36 percent want to preserve it.

But Paul wants to go further. He is pushing to end the agency’s bulk collection of telephone data and opposes a reform bill, the USA Freedom Act, passed overwhelmingly by the House and backed by President Obama.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week GOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal MORE (R-Ky.) and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrKey House Dem's objections stall intel bill as deadline looms Trump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE (N.C.) have a much different view, as do many Senate Republicans. They want to extend the program for five years without changes.

Strategists say the rise of ISIS has raised the profile of national security in the GOP's 2016 presidential primary, posing a problem for Paul. GOP primary voters who cast ballots on the basis of national security tend to favor a muscular U.S. policy.

“His obvious weakness is his foreign policy positions,” said Patrick Davis, a GOP strategist and former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They do run counter to not just the hawks in the Republican Party but the base of the party, which values national security.”

Seventy-seven percent of Republicans rank foreign affairs as important to their presidential vote, a number 22 percentage points higher than among independents, while 81 percent of Republicans say terrorism is another important consideration, a Gallup poll from early May showed.

GOP strategists note that the 10-hour filibuster Paul waged on the Senate floor on May 20 to delay renewal of the NSA’s surveillance programs received less support from GOP colleagues than his 13-hour filibuster against CIA Director John Brennan's nomination in 2013.

Two years ago, Republicans flocked to the floor to support Paul’s contention that the administration had not made clear whether it would allow lethal drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil.

Two other candidates for the GOP nomination, Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNikki Haley: New York Times ‘knew the facts’ about curtains and still released story March For Our Lives founder leaves group, says he regrets trying to 'embarrass' Rubio Rubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzViral video shows O’Rourke air-drumming to the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ after Cruz debate Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate NY Times, McCabe give Trump perfect cover to fire Rosenstein, Sessions MORE (R-Texas), joined Paul’s talk-a-thon to protest Brennan two years ago. So did McConnell, who was then minority leader.

Last week, Rubio did not partake in the filibuster against the Patriot Act, and while Cruz spoke on the floor, he made clear he differs with Paul.

“I would note he and I agree on a great many issues, though we don’t agree entirely on this issue,” Cruz said, declaring his support for the USA Freedom Act, which Paul warns would expand the NSA’s “unconstitutional” program

GOP strategists say the growing strength of radical Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria has weakened Paul’s argument that a constitutional right to privacy should take precedence over intrusive homeland security tactics.

A CBS News/New York Times poll from earlier this month showed 48 percent of Republicans think the battle against ISIS is going “very badly.” That survey result came before the militant group scored a string of victories, including capturing Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.   

In an unorthodox move, Paul on Wednesday laid some of the blame for the instability in Iraq, Syria and Libya at the feet of fellow Republicans.

“ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“They created these people. ISIS is all over Libya because these same hawks in my party loved, they loved Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Michael Moore ties Obama to Trump's win in Michigan in 2016 The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? MORE's war in Libya. They just wanted more of it.”

GOP rivals are seizing the opportunity to undercut Paul’s credibility.

"This is a perfect example of why Senator Paul is unsuited to be commander in chief," Jindal said in a statement Wednesday. "We have men and women in the military who are in the field trying to fight ISIS right now, and Senator Paul is taking the weakest, most liberal Democrat position."

Christie told voters in New Hampshire recently, “You can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin,” framing Paul’s battle against the NSA as endangering American lives.

He went a step further Wednesday by accusing Paul of siding with Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who fled to Russia to evade prosecution in the U.S.

“He's a criminal. He's a criminal, and he's hiding in Russia, and he's lecturing to us about the evils of authoritarian government while he lives under the protective umbrella of Vladimir Putin," Christie said of Snowden.

"That's who Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Reexamining presidential power over national monuments Utah group complains Mia Love should face criminal penalties for improper fundraising MORE and Rand Paul are siding with? With Edward Snowden? Come on," he added, making reference to Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), who supported Paul’s 10-hour filibuster to delay reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to Paul, noted that Jindal endorsed the senator’s stand against the NSA surveillance program only a week ago.

“Just last week, Gov. Jindal spoke out in support of Sen. Paul and announced he now opposes the NSA’s illegal and unnecessary domestic bulk data collection, after previously cheerleading for it,” he said.

“As we have seen for the past few weeks, Sen. Paul is the only Republican running it seems who is willing to learn from our mistakes in the Middle East in order to keep us safer and stronger,” he added. 

Jordain Carney contributed to this report.