Rand Paul seeks breakout moment

Rand Paul seeks breakout moment
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Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE is trying to spin his opposition to government surveillance into political gold.

The Kentucky Republican is using a book tour to promote his role in the Senate battle over the Patriot Act, in hopes of invigorating his White House campaign and standing out in a crowded field of candidates.


But despite his best efforts, it’s far from certain that the strategy will propel Paul to the front of the pack. And with many in the party skeptical of limiting the powers passed after the 9/11 attacks, the campaign may end up winning him more scorn than praise.

“This is Rand Paul’s big chance to punch through the media coverage of all the candidates in order to differentiate himself,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant. 

“The challenge for him is that in doing so, he’s attacking other Republicans, and that really turns off primary voters,” Bonjean added. “He’s going after a whole wing of the Republican Party — most of them believe in a strong national security and they’ll have big problems with the way that Rand Paul is approaching this issue.”

Paul has been on an aggressive publicity tour this week, surrounding the Tuesday release of his third book, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America.

He’s using the press junket to trumpet his role in a high-profile legislative battle over renewing parts of the Patriot Act, which is at the root of controversial National Security Agency (NSA) programs.

In addition to a 10.5-hour floor speech opposing the NSA last week, Paul used procedural tactics to keep the Senate in session until the early hours on Saturday morning, and helped to kill short-term patches to extend expiring parts of the law a few days beyond the June 1 deadline. 

“I know young men who have lost two legs, lost three limbs, and I’ve asked them what they fought for and they said they were fighting for the Bill of Rights,” Paul said on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show” on Tuesday evening.

“I think it’s a disservice for me to say ‘Oh well, I’m just going to roll my eyes and the Bill of Rights is out the window because I’m not willing to stay here on the weekend and fight for something that our Founding Fathers thought was pretty important — important enough to put into the Fourth Amendment,’” he added.

In addition to “The Daily Show,” Paul has visited Fox News and “CBS This Morning,” along with less obvious turf, such as New York’s famed Strand bookstore — co-owned by the wife of Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases Overnight Health Care — Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Poll finds Trump vulnerable on health care in battleground states | HHS must respond to petition on abortion referral ban by Thursday | Wyden presses health officials about CBD regulations MORE (D-Ore.), who has agreed with Paul on the need to reform the Patriot Act.

In the process, Paul has invoked the ire of many fellow Republicans, including some of his likely opponents in the race for the White House.

Paul is “siding” with “criminal” government leaker Edward Snowden, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) argued on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” on Wednesday. 

“This is a perfect example of why Senator Paul is unsuited to be Commander-in-Chief,” added Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), after Paul on Wednesday blamed hawkish Republicans for contributing to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

“It's one thing for Sen. Paul to take an outlandish position as a senator at Washington cocktail parties, but being Commander-in-Chief is an entirely different job,” he added.

While the media assault may be raising his profile nationally, it’s unclear whether it’s helping with the early primary voters Paul needs to reach in Iowa and New Hampshire. In both state and national polling, he repeatedly ranks below front-runners such as Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Mellman: Are primary debates different? Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court MORE (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

GOP voters have consistently said they value strong national security over robust privacy protections.

A Pew poll released in January found that 57 percent of Republicans believed the government has not gone far enough to protect the nation, while just 30 percent said that it had infringed civil liberties.

At the same time, however, polls released by the American Civil Liberties Union this month found that 63 percent of Republican voters in Iowa and 57 percent of GOP voters in New Hampshire believed that Congress should modify the Patriot Act instead of preserving it without change.

One problem for Paul is that he has only opposed congressional reauthorization of the law, without offering up an alternative.

Still, it’s clear his campaign is trying to capitalize on his efforts in the Senate.

Within just 24 hours of scuttling Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats MORE's (R-Ky.) plans for a short-term patch to the expiring Patriot Act provisions early on Saturday morning, Paul’s campaign sent at least two separate emails asking supporters for money and contact information.

“Last night I put NSA spying on life support,” Paul said in the subject line of one email.

In recent days, the campaign has also begun selling a $30 “filibuster starter pack” that includes a T-shirt, bumper sticker and “NSA spy cam blocker” device designed to cover a laptop Web camera. The shirt reads: “The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul tshirt.”

That publicity focus has certainly irked some of his fellow GOP lawmakers.

Paul’s behavior is “a great revenue raiser,” quipped Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Trump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry Trump endorses McSally in Arizona Senate race MORE (R-Ariz.) after the late-night voting over the weekend.

Even Republicans who largely agree with Paul about the need to rein in the NSA say that he's playing political games, which detract from his message. 

Paul’s 10.5-hour floor remarks last week “was a speech from someone who’s running for president of the United States,” Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (R-Nev.) told The Hill after the speech. Heller is a co-sponsor of the main NSA reform bill in the Senate, called the USA Freedom Act.

“I don’t disagree with him, but I don’t think it has as much weight as it would be if it were from someone who is not a candidate running for president.”

— Jordain Carney contributed.