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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Can Rand Paul Be a 'Different' Republican Presidential Candidate?

The Kentucky Senator wants to be all things for all voters. But there's a fine line between inclusivity and pandering.

by Grace Wyler
08 April 2015, 4:00am

Photo by Grace Wyler, courtesy of Business Insider

Supporters patiently waiting for Rand Paul's arrival in the Galt House Hotel ballroom here in Louisville, Kentucky , Tuesday morning were suddenly faced with the grisly mug of Kris Kristofferson. The country music legend and occasional actor was the star of Paul's warm-up act, a populist music video set to John Rich's 2009 anti–Wall Street anthem "Shuttin' Detroit Down."

The original version of the video features Kristofferson as "John," an auto worker who gets laid off from a company he's worked at for 30 years. It also includes a cameo from Mickey Rourke, as an angry worker upset by Kristofferson's plight. For Tuesday's occasion, Paul's campaign reproduced the video ( apparently without getting all the proper permissions), sprucing it up with clips of the Kentucky Senator talking up his plans to revitalize inner cities with low-tax "enterprise zones."

It was the first of several videos Paul's audience was treated to in the 40-minute lead-up to the Republican's highly-anticipated speech announcing that he is indeed running for president in 2016. There were clips of Paul talking about NSA reform—"I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business!"—and images of the Senator taking selfies with young fans. There were videos of Paul talking about school choice and criminal justice reforms, huddling with black and Hispanic community leaders. Slogans flashed on screen with messages like "The Future of Conservatism," and "Reaching a New Generation." A segment introduced as the "Guatemala video" showed Paul performing pro-bono eye surgeries there on a recent trip to Central America.

In between videos, speakers talked up Paul's appeal to voters beyond the Republican Party's traditional base—a young girl spoke, as did Pastor Jerry Stephenson, a minister at the Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville. A blind child sang the national anthem. The candidate's father, libertarian demi-god Ron Paul, stood on stage, alongside his cozy wife Carol and various other members of the Paul clan.The whole thing was emceed by J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman who has been trying for years to get conservatives to reach out to black voters, and who has finally found a convert in Senator Paul.

Taken together, the message was clear: Paul is a different kind of Republican, one who will run a different kind of Republican campaign.Whatever a disgruntled American voter might want in a 2016 presidential candidate, Paul promised to fill that need: The blue-collar Everyman and the techno-futurist; the prayerful family man, and also the anointed leader of a libertarian revolution; the small-town eye doctor who could restore the ocular health of a nation.

"I have a message! A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We have come to take our country back!" Paul began, taking the stage to wild cheers from the audience of roughly 1,500 supporters. "Too often when Republicans have won we have squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine," he continued. "That's not who I am."

"This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life," Paul added later. "The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you're white or black, rich or poor."

The themes are familiar, a variation of the message the Senator and his team have been spreading for more than two years. Since at least 2013, Paul has been crisscrossing the country to sell himself as the future of the Republican Party, shuttling between Silicon Valley fundraisers and minority business roundtables, college campuses and conservative confabs to inform anyone who would listen that he is the only 2016 candidate who can attract the minority voters and young people the GOP needs if it ever wants to win another presidential election.

"Right now I'm the only one that beats Hillary Clinton in certain purple states," Paul said in an interview with Fox News last month. "I'm the only one that also scores above all the other Republicans in whether or not I can beat her."

At the Galt House Hotel on Tuesday, there were some signs, albeit anecdotal ones, that Paul's outreach efforts might be working. The ballroom was packed with rabid young Paul fans—college activists and teenagers who have been following the libertarian-leaning Senator for months, passing out stickers and Stand With Rand T-shirts. But they were squished in with a surprisingly diverse mix of Paul supporters—black preachers in somber Sunday suits, bedraggled veterans of Ron Paul campaigns, blown-dry ladies in Republican red.

After the speech, a smattering of these activists gathered in a conference room to make calls for campaign donations. The energy was palpable, especially after Paul stopped by the room to shake hands and snap photos with his fans. "I think he's the best chance that we have, and the only hope to get America back on its feet," said Sigurd Mandell-Zayon, a blue-haired 16-year-old from Pennsylvania who drove to Louisville with his parents to "witness this moment."

"There's finally a choice," chimed in Aharon Benyontan, a 20-year-old EMT student sitting nearby. "To be entirely honest, I think Rand Paul is the exemplification of where the social contract needs to go. When I agreed to live within the social contract as a person, I didn't agree to one where the sovereign gets to access all my information and legally kidnap me for smoking pot. Which I love."

Derek Barber, a Kentucky political activist who said he recently changed his voter registration from Democrat to Republican, told me he's been impressed by Paul's outreach to black communities in Louisville. "Once we got a chance to speak with Republicans, we've realized that our stances aren't so different," Barber told me after the speech, noting that he is part of a group of black political activist who have started campaigning for Republican candidates in Kentucky.

"What he's saying makes sense to us. Yes, we do realize that there are some gaps when it comes to justice. Civil rights restoration is a huge issue that Democrats should have put on the table, considering that blacks vote highly Democratic in Kentucky," he said. "So I'm glad that someone is speaking up on those issues, even if it is a Republican. Because we're looking for answers."

Of course, there are limits to Paul's catchall campaign message. Tuesday's speech drifted between his more liberally-minded policies, on issues like criminal justice reform and NSA surveillance, to signature red-meat proposals like balanced budget amendment and term limits that are unlikely to resonate with voters beyond his libertarian, Tea Party base.

"I think he does have more work to do, especially with minority voters," said Franklin Ndekwe, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who works in Louisville. A self-described conservative who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, Ndekwe said that he hasn't picked a candidate for 2016, but that he agreed with Paul's economic policies. But, he added, the Kentucky Republican "doesn't necessarily relate to minority communities in the way that he should."

"I think he's going to have to embrace policies that minority groups gravitate towards—immigration reform, some social policies," he said. "Mitt Romney had those same challenges."

Democrats were quick to point out the contradictions in Paul's new presidential persona. In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz dismissed Paul's attempts to reach out to nontraditional GOP voters. "It doesn't matter how many times he tries to reinvent himself, the fact remains that Rand Paul's policies are way outside the mainstream," she said.

"How can he broaden the Republican appeal to African Americans when he has voiced opposition to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act?" she added. "How can be broaden the appeal to millennials when he has called for the abolition of the Department of Education and opposed letting students refinance their student loans?"

The immediate—and intense—response is also a signal that Democrats are taking Paul's campaign seriously. There is no guarantee that Democrats will be able to reunite Barack Obama's winning coalition of youth and minority voters when his name is not on the ballot.

"All of my life I was a Democrat and in 2012 I became an Independent," Stephenson told me after the speech. "I don't think the traditional parties and leadership are about change."

"There is no desire in the Democratic Party to change," he added. "I'm a part of a cry that cries out to say to the politicians 'Do you all hear the people? Are you listening? Because the people are not doing well.'"

If Paul recognized any contradictions in his message, it wasn't apparent in his speech. The Senator floated seamlessly between Tea Party rhetoric and his more left-wing ideas as if the connection between the two was perfectly natural, even obvious.

"Those of us who have enjoyed the American dream must break down the wall that separates us from the other America. I want all our children to have the same opportunities that I had," he said, offering a plug for school choice. "It won't happen, though, unless we realize that we can't borrow our way to prosperity. Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn't the country just survive on $3 trillion?"

Of course, a presidential candidate obviously can't be all things to all voters. As Paul tries to cobble together his new coalition—bringing together Ron Paul libertarians and Silicon Valley futurists with Establishment Republicans, Bible-thumpers, and traditionally Democratic voting blocs—the Kentucky Senator is walking a fine line between inclusivity and pandering. On Tuesday, though, Paul's supporters seemed happy to help him along on that tightrope, and leave ideological squabbling for another day. And as with any presidential campaign, there will be plenty of time for disappointment down the line.

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.

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