Rand Paul Scraps with Bush, Rubio, and Graham—on Policy if Not by Name

The Kentucky senator issues jabs to his competitors from the New Hampshire stage.
David Weigel

NASHUA, N.H. -- Republican-on-Republican brawling broke out during Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's speech to the First in the Nation summit. Seventeen minutes in, as Paul discussed his Senate fights against threats to due process, he said that "the loudest critics of me" had engaged in an outrageous debate.

"One of them said, well, 'When they ask for a lawyer, just tell them to shut up,'" said Paul. "Really? That's the kind of discourse we're going to have in this country?"

He was referring to, but not naming, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who would speak to the summit several hours later. In 2011, Graham found himself debating Paul on whether enemy combatants — not American citizens — should be read their Miranda rights. "You don't get a lawyer," Graham had continued. "You're an enemy combatant."

Not for the first time, Paul was telling Republican voters that his critics had been debunked and discredited. Standing next to a lectern, wearing jeans, a button-down white shirt, and a red tie, Paul warned that there was "a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more" and "a group of folks in our party who voted to give arms to Gaddafi." They talked tough on terrorism, but they had no idea what the consequences of their votes were.

"I voted against arming the rebels [in Syria] because I said the irony is that one day we'll be back fighting against our own weapons," Paul said. "And now it's true."

The chief proponent of the ideas Paul decried was usually Arizona Senator John McCain. In 2000 and 2008, McCain won New Hampshire's primary — in the latter race he ran far ahead of Paul's father, former Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Yet in the Crowne Plaza ballroom, Paul described a version of libertarian Republican politics that would reach into Democratic turf and pull out voters who weren't being catered to. "The last two nominees," said Paul, referring to McCain and to Mitt Romney, "I don’t remember any tax cuts being part of their programs at all."

By contrast, he'd campaign on broad tax cuts that would benefit inner cities and poor rural counties. The GOP, he said, did not need to pander to business owners and win their voters. 

"We're already doing that," he said. "If you want to win elections, you've got to win the votes of the people who work for the businesses."

It was hard not to think of the 2012 Republican convention and its parade of small business owners who claimed to have been offended to their cores by Barack Obama's garbled "you didn't build that" gaffe. Similarly, it was hard not to hear the voices of the GOP's hawks when Paul talked up his lawsuit against the National Security Agency. On Friday night, Florida Senator Marco Rubio told the same room of Republicans that anti-NSA rhetoric was unfounded. "Don't listen to hyperbole about listening to your phone calls," he said.

Paul got some of his biggest applause by warning about exactly that. "The Fourth Amendment is not consistent with a warrant that says Mr. Verizon on it," he said. "Last I checked, Mr. Verizon is not a person. The government, it's none of their damn business what you're doing on your phone."

As the applause subsided, Paul cracked a joke: "You can say 'damn' in New Hampshire, can't you?"

Paul got in an even more subtle contrast with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Two days earlier, Bush had told reporters that Senate Republicans needed to confirm Loretta Lynch, President Obama's nominee for attorney general, who — as Democrats have said with diminishing amounts of tact — would be the first black woman to hold that job.

"Civil forfeiture — this is where the government can take your stuff without you being charged with a crime," said Paul. "Disproportionately, the people affected by it are minorities. Disproportionately, the people affected by it are poor... you know who the biggest defender of it is?"

"Loretta Lynch!" yelled Norman Trezenga, a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

"This is the main reason I oppose her," said Paul, to more applause. "Nobody on the Democratic side is doing a damn thing about this."

Paul spent 27 minutes delivering his stump speech —ending, as he often does, with a declaration that the Benghazi disaster "disqualified" Hillary Clinton from the presidency — and took eight minutes of friendly questions. He confirmed that he supported the "parental rights" of homeschoolers, and that he wanted the new Republican senate to pass a national right to work law. (Paul's political team includes veterans of the National Right to Work Committee.)

The only new topic Paul handled all morning came when he visited a nearby diner, and a New Hampshire voter asked him how Nevada's Yucca Mountain could be used to store nuclear waste. 

"I think there ought to be a way that both Nevada and the federal government could come to an agreement," Paul said. "Make an incentive for it to be there, make it so Nevada wants it."

Both at the diner and at the summit, Paul was mobbed for selfies and autographs. He signed everything from baseballs to a children's book, Little Blue Truck's Christmas, which was the only sign-able thing one parent had handy after Paul posed with her baby.

"He probably got more applause than anyone I've seen speak here so far," said focus group guru Frank Luntz, who had watched most of the speech standing next to Paul's campaign manager Chip Englander. "You've got to give them something different, and you've got to get them to pay attention for a year."

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