Griffin Hammond for Bloomberg Politics
New Hampshire

As Bush and Romney Battle, Can Rand Paul Sneak Through In New Hampshire?

In the land of the Libertarian, the Kentucky Senator tries to convince his father’s voters that he’s a man of the true faith.

CONCORD, N.H.—Rand Paul was winding down his day, talking to his fourth overflow crowd in eight hours. He’d started with state legislators who (mostly) had supported his father’s second presidential bid, in 2012. After a chat with the mayor of Manchester, he was off to talk with gun owners. He spun right around to talk to teachers about the threat of Common Core, and then he went up the highway to The Draft, a sports bar owned by the friendly State Senator Andy Sanborn, to address an assemblage of small businessmen.

At the bar, for the third time that day—totally unbidden—a potential voter asked him about militarization.

“I wanted to know if you thought the corporations that are selling weapons to the government are part of the problem,” asked Arnie Alpert, a Quaker activist wearing an NAACP badge on his tweed lapel.

“We’ve been at war now for five months without any vote by Congress,” said Paul. “I think we’re in violation of the Constitution right now.” When Alpert pressed him, Paul basically agreed with the sentiment. “If you get a billion-dollar contract from government, I would write into the contract that you voluntarily agree not to take any of that money and lobby Congress for more contracts. It is a feeding trough where those who get money use it to get more.”

Sanborn, who had organized the event with his wife, Laurie, (who’s also a State Representative), was beaming. The two of them had tried to invite voters who’d never normally sit for a Republican—peaceniks, even Democrats, people like Alpert—and here they were, being won over by Rand Paul. When the Senator wrapped and headed to his umpteenth interview, Alpert started talking to a Concord city councilor who’d just tried to stop the city from obtaining a Bearcat armored vehicle, and to a retired teacher who’d watched the deal go down.

“It’s not a positive development for society,” said the councilman, Robert Werner.

“Ever seen Boyz in the Hood?” asked John Raby, the teacher. “The whole point of that movie was police as an occupation force. And that was in 1991, 1992—this has been going on for a generation!”

None of these men had voted for Ron Paul, who, it’s fair to guess, has not streamed Boyz in the Hood. But they were all curious about his son, and their curiosity was well-timed. The surprise re-emergence of Mitt Romney as a 2016 presidential candidate, and the surprisingly early campaign moves of Jeb Bush, have crowded the Republican battlefield. Romney’s very public exploration of a new presidential bid hit New Hampshire like a depth charge, dividing the establishment Republicans who counted both the Bush family and the Romney clan as friends. (John Sununu, chief of staff for George H.W. Bush and pugnacious ally of Romney’s, said he was not talking about the race “with all the uncertainty out there.” Until last week, he was expected to side with Jeb.)

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The schism between Jeb and Mitt created an opening—and no one is in a better position to benefit than Paul, who says he’ll decide on a bid by March or April. New Hampshire has always been a key state for a Paul campaign. For most of the past decade, the state has attracted new libertarian-minded immigrants from other states, and elected new libertarian-minded legislators. They’re often the same people. The Free State Project, an effort to attract a critical mass of libertarians to one state and steer its life and politics, was organizing in New Hampshire long before Ron Paul ran for president. When Paul ran in 2008 and 2012, he grew a passionate base of volunteers.

“They were pretty symbiotic,” says Jason Sorens, the young Yale academic (now a professor at Dartmouth, fittingly) who dreamed up the Free State concept in 2001. “The Free Staters went from 500 to 1200 in the space of a couple of years, and there was a big boost to us from the Ron Paul movement.”

How big a boost? “I’ve tried to investigate this, actually,” says Sorens. “I looked at the correlation between Free Staters and the 2008 primary vote for Paul. For every one of them in a given town, there were two additional votes for him.”

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Not everyone who supported Ron Paul is supporting Rand Paul. In early polls, Paul pulls around 12 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote—a little more than half the total vote for his father. The senator said several times this week that he would not bring his father, who turns 80 this year, onto the campaign trail. It’s also easy to find Free Staters who identify as minarchists, or voluntaryists, and argue that something’s been lost in the Paul DNA. In Keene, a west New Hampshire college town where libertarians have gotten in trouble for filling strangers’ parking meters and videotaping police activity, it’s easy to find people who believe that the son has strayed quite far from the true faith.

“This guy is not a libertarian,” says Ian Freeman, a radio host and citizen journalist with the Free Keene blog. “He doesn’t claim to be a libertarian. Yes there are certain people in the movement who think he’s a libertarian, but he doesn’t have a shadow of his father’s principles. I can’t say anyone I know is impressed by this guy. I had a Ron Paul sign in my yard but I wouldn’t vote for Rand.”

Rand Paul is aware of this critique and has tried to answer it. In the past few years, when he’s visited New Hampshire, he’s set aside time for private meetings with supportive activists and legislators.

“He doesn’t lecture to us,” says Dan Garthwaite, a Free Stater who ran for state legislature in 2014 and lost by only 51 votes. “He asks us, ‘Who do I need to talk to?’ He’s paying close attention. He’s really listening to people.”

The message that’s resulted from that is a hybrid of Paul’s own principles and a close local touch. It’s evident at every stop. On Wednesday, at almost 8 a.m. exactly, Paul arrived for a public meeting of 20 state legislators who were inclined to support him. When State Senator Kevin Avard asked Paul about a local fracking fight, Paul was ready with an answer about the threat of eminent domain.

“Remember y’all’s Supreme Court Justice David Souter?” asked Paul. “We sent him back to you.” Paul made the case for energy markets while reminding libertarians that the high court judge who wrote the infamous Kelo v. New London decision legitimizing eminent domain had been appointed by George H.W. Bush.

And the questions got friendlier from there. “When I was younger, I was quite a hawk,” said Larry Gagne, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran and member of New Hampshire’s elected general court. “Now that I’m a little older and wiser, I’m sick of being the world’s policeman.”

Paul nodded. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “We’re in NATO. We’re supposed to stand with each other. Why isn’t Turkey stepping up to support us now that ISIS is attacking? If Turkey were to put 100,000 troops on that border, what do you think ISIS would do? They would run.”

Paul linked the disaster in Iraq to “Hillary’s war” in Libya. To the idle listener, it would seem that Democrats were the party of foreign disaster, and Paul was commonsensically trying to fix that, to stop ideas like occupying failed states. “We can physically do that, but I don’t know if we can financially do that, or if we’re willing to give up our sons and daughters to pacify Libya.”

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After Paul finished, Gagne explained how he’d come around to his views. “I thought Ron Paul was too much of an isolationist,” he said. “Some of us grey-haired people need to start looking to younger people.”

Other legislators and likely Paul endorsers shared that sentiment; one suggested that an on-stage debate between Paul and Hillary Clinton would look as lopsided as Nixon-Kennedy. It wasn’t just that Paul was sharp, but that he was 15 years younger than the possible nominee. That was another advantage Ron Paul never had.

The elder Paul, for all the passion he inspired in New Hampshire, was never as adept a retail politician as his son. “He’d do these big rallies, and give a big speech,” recalls Andy Sanborn, who endorsed Paul in 2012. “Rand adapts to different settings.”

That was on display around noon on Wednesday, when Paul and his small field team joined a hunting club’s meeting south of Manchester. He wore a windbreaker with the logo of the National Organization for Gun Rights. On his left, an activist with the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity was working the room. On his right stood men with T-shirts pronouncing themselves “infidels,” or announcing their membership in the right-wing Oath Keepers. Richard Peeples, an Oath Keeper with am arm badge reading “Molon Labe”—a slogan of defiance coined by the Spartans and adopted by the Tea Party—waited to talk to Paul while the senator discussed the best long guns with a leader in the club.

“I think there’s a communist onslaught in America,” Peeples said. Yet that wasn’t what he wanted to talk to Paul about. He wanted a president who’d undo the damage the “Cadillac tax” of the Affordable Care Act was going to do to his business.

Paul’s speech to the hunting club was closed to the press, on the club’s surprise orders. When they exited the speech, club members described a long Paul answer to the question of bringing guns over state lines—an answer that also criticized the acquisition of military equipment by police departments. It was an issue that angered protesters in Ferguson, and that worried Oath Keepers who’d pledged to resist government tyranny, and Paul, unique among Republicans, had spoken to both groups.

It was answers like that, said recent New Hampshire transplant Brandon Navom, that explained why Rand Paul could get most of his father’s vote, then reach out to Democrats. The libertarians who’d organized in New Hampshire were ready to strike up the band for another Paul.

“You really have to have a mechanism behind the campaign,” said Navom, who wore a T-shirt from a 2012 Ron Paul rally in Tampa. “You have to have volunteers. It took 20-30 years of Ron in Congress, being the absolute pillar of the Constitution, for them to back him. It’ll take them a little while to really back Rand.”

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When the diehards wavered, they were typically worried about foreign policy. After the hunting event, shortly before the talk with charter school teachers about Common Core, Paul stopped for an interview about the race, and the field. All week, since Romney started mobilizing, Republicans had been saying he’d been right about Obama. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte had called Romney “vindicated” on foreign policy. Paul wouldn’t echo that—certainly, the fact that Romney had called Russia an adversary didn’t mean he deserved a new presidential nomination.

“Yes, Russia is an adversary of ours,” said Paul. “Are we enemies, like in the Cold War? This is sort of a long, philosophical discussion. There are things they do that we definitely disapprove of, but we’re not at war with Russia. Do we need to have an adequate defense to defend our country? Yes. But I don’t think just saying there was some sort of rightness there all of a sudden means, my goodness, that person was the only person who only said something like that. There are other active debates in foreign policy.”

He hadn’t denounced Romney, a candidate who’d found a sort of peace with the 2012 Ron Paul campaign. He hadn’t distanced himself from the anti-interventionism that libertarians and possible liberal crossover voters wanted. He wasn’t drawing new condemnation from the GOP’s hawks, either. When asked what he thought of being called a “frontrunner” in 2014, but being behind in the fresh New Hampshire polls, Paul sounded relieved.

“Phew, am I glad that’s over with!” said Paul, wiping his brow. “The polls fluctuate because people aren’t thinking of who they’re going to vote for. They’re thinking of who’s in the news.”

He was under the radar, where he could build.