The Contender

05.10.13

Rand Paul Parties in Iowa

He loves filibusters, small government, and Tea Parties. And if his dad’s pals have any say, he’ll be president in 2016. Dave Catanese on the senator’s crucial Hawkeye State swing.

Rand Paul makes his maiden 2016 journey into Iowa on Friday to introduce himself to a Republican Party that has been largely overtaken by his father’s top allies.

And that unique dynamic could prove critical to his chances in the first-in-the-nation caucus state as he prepares for a likely White House run.

Iowa Republican Party chairman A.J. Spiker says the senator’s rollicking 13-hour March filibuster against the president’s drone policy was the impetus behind the decision to extend the invitation to the Kentucky freshman to headline Friday’s Lincoln Day dinner in Cedar Rapids.

But it probably didn’t hurt that Spiker was vice chairman of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in Iowa.

Or that state party finance chair Drew Ivers served as Ron Paul’s Iowa chairman.

Or that David Fischer, the current co-chairman of the Iowa GOP, was also a top adviser to Ron Paul’s Hawkeye State hopes.

It’s more than a bit ironic that the old gang of anti-establishment hands who steered the insurgent candidacy of Paul’s father are now essentially … the Iowa GOP establishment. And that the changing of the guard in the top echelon of the party institution—perpetuated by the botched reporting of the 2012 caucus results—gives Paul an early leg up over his rivals. 

“I do think that he starts off in a good position should he choose to run in 2016, based on relationships his father built over the past couple years,” said Spiker, who stressed his impartiality in part by noting his term as chairman expires in January 2015, a full year before the presidential caucus. 

After all, while Ron Paul placed third in the 2012 caucus, just three percentage points separated him and victor Rick Santorum—a difference of only about 3,800 votes. Much of Paul’s Campaign for Liberty organization remains actively in place at the county level and veteran Iowa operatives believe those legions of supporters will be largely transferable to Rand.

“The work that his father had done should not be underestimated. Anyone else would be enviable of stepping into that kind of an organization or that kind of familiarity with the people who may end up working on the caucus cycle,” said Bob Haus, a veteran GOP adman who advised Gov. Rick Perry’s failed venture in the state. “He starts off on second base with a pretty good lead towards third and home, as opposed to any other candidate who would want to come in and access that network. Sen. Paul’s job is now to come in and make the sale.”

At this embryonic stage, first impressions and introductions are much more important than polls.

Friday’s venture into Iowa—his first in a year—is not only designed to nurture those friendly existing relationships forged by the father, but begin to build new ones that will lay the groundwork for the much broader coalition that Paul is seeking to build, aides say.

In addition to delivering a speech to the faithful that will touch on a potpourri of Paul’s prized issues—riffs on Benghazi, drones, the budget, and, yes, even likely immigration—the senator will hold separate meetings with the leadership of his father’s old political team and a group of influential Iowa pastors, according to Paul aides.

Also on the docket: coffee with the Iowa Federation of Republican Women and then on Saturday, a quick jaunt south to Iowa City for a breakfast fundraiser for the Johnson County GOP.

The schedule pointedly encapsulates both the challenge and opportunity that Paul faces in molding libertarians, social conservatives, and rank-and-file establishment folks into the same political bloc.

It’s a tricky proposition for an aspirant who has forcefully posited that the nation move towards the decriminalization of drug use while at the same time urged a “stale and moss-covered” GOP to leave gay marriage to the states. 

“I think Rand has a better chance to reach out to Iowa social conservatives than his dad did,” said Paul’s top political savant Doug Stafford, in an interview in his Senate office.

But some of his views have left the highly influential rigid social conservative wing of the party flummoxed and wary.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa Family Leader, told me in March that Paul needed to develop a “clear and more consistent message on where he believes the definition of marriage is and what government’s role is.”

It’s likely the pastors will also want further clarification of Paul’s off-handed remark in March that there are “thousands of exceptions” to a ban on abortion.

“The key will be to avoid making mistakes, like his comment on abortion, or show himself as a shape-shifter on immigration, gay marriage, or other issues. On occasion, he seems to be casting about in search of a position or language that is acceptable to a larger audience, but I know that activists in Iowa will be watching very closely when he appears to mince words,” said David Kochel, a former Iowa GOP executive director who was an aide to Mitt Romney’s team.

Despite some slip-ups, the 50-year-old Paul is largely viewed as a savvier communicator wielding a more strategic political mind than his father, who ran at a much older age. With his thick, curly head of hair and a wry smile, the junior Paul is a smoother, more pragmatic political operator.

“He sounds good, he looks good. He’s not the same type of elected official as his dad. His dad was never afraid to blame America first. Rand seems to choose his words more judiciously and that can go a long way,” said Steve Grubbs, a Davenport-based Republican strategist. “Unlike his father, most Republicans believe he has the chance to move beyond sort of the traditional libertarians and branch out into more establishment Republicans.”   

A poll paid for by a pro-gun political action committee released this week appeared to confirm that assessment, showing Paul holding an early double-digit lead in the Hawkeye State. 

But there’s a lesson to be heeded from his father’s travails: At this embryonic stage, first impressions and introductions are much more important than polls. 

That’s why the Paul team is already in the midst of planning another trip back in July.