U.S. Senator Rand Paul criticized former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for failing to boost security in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack on a diplomatic compound there as he began what amounts to a 2016 presidential exploratory tour.
“It was inexcusable, it was a dereliction of duty, and it should preclude her from holding higher office,” the Kentucky Republican said yesterday, drawing a standing ovation from about 500 of his party’s faithful at a dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attack, which killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Paul has said he’s actively contemplating a presidential bid, and Clinton would be the presumptive Democratic frontrunner should she decide to run.
While attacking Clinton is a sure way to score political points with fellow Republicans, Paul has also shown a willingness to buck his party’s orthodoxy as he seeks to expand his base beyond the limited-government Tea Party movement.
The ophthalmologist and first-term lawmaker called on Republicans to be more inclusive of minorities, as he spoke in the state that traditionally hosts the first primary season contest.
“As a party we need to grow bigger,” he said. “We are an increasingly diverse nation and I think we do need to reach out to other people that don’t look like us, don’t wear the same clothes, aren’t exactly who we are.”
Paul, 50, was considerably more subdued than during a speech in March outside Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of groups whose members are a core part of the Republican base.
Before his remarks yesterday, Paul told reporters that he doesn’t plan to decide until next year whether to pursue a White House run. For now, he said, he’s planning to seek re-election to the Senate in 2016.
“I don’t feel a time constraint,” he said. “In all likelihood, I will be on the ballot for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, though, and we haven’t really looked beyond that.”
Paul is also scheduled to speak at a May 20 dinner in New Hampshire, where voters typically cast the first primary ballots. About a month later, he’ll give a speech in another state with a traditionally early primary, South Carolina.
“It’s also how you have a bigger voice nationally,” he said of his visit to Iowa. “It’s sort of a place where political leaders come in order to try to talk about issues that they want to resonate nationally.”
In Iowa, Paul’s challenge with potential caucus participants is to convince them that he can be trusted on abortion, opposition to gay rights and other issues important to Republicans.
For many of the evangelical Christians who dominate Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses, Paul’s opposition to a federal ban on same-sex marriage is troublesome. These voters, along with abortion opponents, backed former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012 and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, two leading voices of the party’s religious wing.
Paul told reporters that the party needs to include people who hold opposing views on issues such as same-sex marriage if it’s going to be successful nationally.
“I think there are going to be some Republicans in New England, California, different places where we’re not doing very well, where we’re going to say, you can be part of our party if you don’t agree with us on every issue,” he said.
Paul ventured into Iowa even earlier than candidates did for the 2012 presidential campaign. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, among the first Republican hopefuls to arrive in the state, didn’t make his first major speech there until November 2009, a full year after the 2008 election.
Despite his unorthodox positions on some Republican issues, Paul arrived with some built-in support. That’s because backers of his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, have taken over Iowa’s Republican Party. A.J. Spiker, who led Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa caucus campaign, is state party chairman.
Paul has refrained from embracing some of the positions held by his father, who ran for president three times and was often dismissed as a fringe candidate.
The elder Paul talked about a return to linking the dollar to gold and a noninterventionist foreign policy, including opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He also criticized the mission that led to Osama bin Laden’s death, saying the U.S. should have worked with Pakistan and shown more respect for international law.
“I haven’t come out in favor of legalizing drugs,” Senator Paul told reporters, citing one of his father’s past policy positions. “But I have come out in favor of saying, you know what, I’m not for putting kids in jail and locking them up and throwing away the key.”
While not embracing all of his father’s views, Paul could benefit from the political infrastructure his dad built. Ron Paul won 16 of Iowa’s 99 counties and finished third in the 2012 caucuses, in part by winning over young voters and independents, a tactic that could also boost his son’s chances.
The senator told reporters they shouldn’t dwell on comparisons between him and the congressman, then cited other father-son combinations who have run for president.
“Ultimately, George W. Bush was elected on his own merits,” he said. “After a while, if it isn’t about what I stand for, and if it’s always about a comparison, that means I’m not doing a very good job and am not going to be a significant player on the national scene.”