Rand Paul’s campaign is not dead but he sure is acting like it.
Almost a year after being named “The Most Interesting Man in Politics,” the Kentucky senator stood in a rustic New England kitchen on a Saturday morning, surrounded by dozens of adoring fans, and looking like anything but.
Paul fan after Paul fan approached and shook his hand. Sometimes he made eye contact and engaged his supporters on the nuances of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution. “I call them the Justice Amendments,” said Paul, dressed in jeans, a white dress shirt, and a dark blazer.
Paul’s campaign has received a beating all week. The Associated Press ran a story about a growing chorus in the Republican Party calling for him to drop out, something Red State founder Erick Erickson echoed with a post calling for Paul to instead focus on his Senate reelection campaign.
His recent fundraising numbers are disappointing, his poll numbers are atrocious in places like New Hampshire where he should be thriving, a former top aide is on trial facing bribery charges, and his campaign’s latest digital stunt was an embarrassing flop.
So, here he was, back on the trail in New Hampshire,where he sometimes stared at the beautiful wood floor below him as he shuffled his well-worn brown shoes like an awkward kid at a middle school dance.
When people handed him books to sign, his eyes darted around the room as if searching for the nearest exit. Not that Paul wasn’t more than happy to sign, but he signed them in the most delicate fashion, seeming to genuinely care about the person he is dedicating it to.
“Am I making this out to you or to someone else?”
Paul’s adoring fans, who packed into the Contoocook home of Ron Noyes, are also the sort who loyally backed his father during his quixotic 2008 and 2012 presidential runs. They’re almost entirely libertarians and are hell-bent on limiting the size of government and expanding liberty.
They like the Younger Paul, but he hasn’t inspired the run-through-the-wall enthusiasm that existed here for his father. With the exception of a Fusion TV video camera in the corner, the event felt more like a large libertarian book club than a campaign event.
As the event started to wind down, Paul concluded his discussion on the differences between a democratic republic and a direct democracy. The audience, dressed for fall in New England, nodded in agreement as Paul wraps up.
“Thanks, guys,” he told his gathered fans before he let out a noticeable sigh of relief.
He should be comfortable at a campaign party in a home where a “Don’t Tread On Anyone” sticker adorns the fridge in a kitchen framed by exposed wood beams. Clearly, these are his people.
But was he enjoying it?
“I love it. We’re thinking about putting out smiling emojis in all our emails, do you think that would help?” he replied when asked by a reporter, exhaustion in his voice.
Paul dismissed the Erickson column when asked if he had a reaction.
“None,” he said, clearly annoyed by the question.
The Kentucky senator insisted his libertarian message catching on in New Hampshire and suggested he’s drawing bigger crowds than people realize.
“I think it’s unknown how well we’re doing because it’s still early,” said Paul, repeating a tried and true explanation for seemingly low polls and muted reception.
Later that day, Paul slogged to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post an hour north in Ashland where 100 people waited for a classic town hall meeting with the candidate.
The walls are covered in rough faux wood paneling and the popcorn ceiling hangs low. This place is a classic 1970s VFW hall, complete with all kinds of historic memorabilia slapped on the walls. There were rows of chairs circled around the center of the room. They looked mildly comfortable to sit in and listen to a politician speak for an hour.
His campaign advance team did little to spruce the place up for the TV cameras (only local access and Fusion show up), which left the place with a more authentic feel for Paul and prospective voters.
It’s a varied crowd of undecideds and supporters, young and old. His campaign collected several new volunteer cards as people trickled in. Paul operatives and volunteers expressed optimism at the crowd.
“It’s about conversations. The more we expose people to his message in intimate settings like this the more they like it. This is the best way to cut through the chatter on TV,” said a volunteer, speaking as if they have much of a choice.
Dressed in jeans and a bright plaid shirt for the town hall, State Senator Andy Sandborn enthusiastically introduced Paul, who donned a blue vest. Sandborn’s introduction was like a can of Red Bull compared to the senator. But Paul’s energy gradually picked up as he delivered a libertarian-ish stump speech that touched all the right notes for the Most Libertarian State in The Country: spending, civil liberties, and non-interventionist foreign policy.
He mad strong comparisons between himself and the other candidates, clearly outlining how his worldview was different, particularly on foreign policy. The crowd appeared fascinated by his different take.
“If you think it’s conservative to have a blank check for the military, I think that’s a mistake. I think if you meet with anybody that’s been in the military they’ll tell you there is waste in the military,” said Paul.
He even managed to slip in a jab at Donald Trump as he discussed eminent domain abuse, describing him as “a certain businessman from New York with a funny hat.”
Paul drew several laughs from the crowd with zingers in his speech but he did not appear to enjoy them, maintaining a straight face.
After Paul finished his speech he took some questions from the crowd; most of them are in his wheelhouse and he hit them out of the park. He seemed far more comfortable now than he did this morning. He smiled occasionally and made eye contact with the people he spoke to as he headed for the exit.
As he walked to his SUV with a campaign aide, he takes a question on the growing online gambling daily fantasy sports scandal and brushes it off.
“I don’t know anything about it, sorry,” he said.
As he moved closer to his ride, he dropped a water bottle on the VFW’s inclined driveway, causing it to roll slightly down the hill. He bent down, picked it up, looked at it, and sighed, shrugging his shoulders slightly before getting in his campaign SUV and driving away.
Garrett Quinn is the digital news editor for Boston Magazine. He covered the 2012 presidential campaign trail for Reason Magazine.