CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Sen. Rand Paul brought his national ambitions to Iowa on Friday, ripping potential Democratic rival Hillary Clinton while urging his own Republican Party to broaden its appeal as he campaigned like it was already 2016.
The centerpiece of his visit was a speech before the Republican Lincoln Day dinner, a traditional launch pad for presidential bids. He also visited with local media, pastors from around the state and a group of Republican women in Cedar Rapids on Friday and plans to attend a breakfast Saturday in North Liberty.
The 50-year-old Kentucky Republican is coy about his plans, saying he won’t decide on a White House bid until next year at the earliest. And, he said, “In all likelihood I will be on the ballot in Kentucky,” where he would be up for re-election in 2016. “We haven’t looked beyond that.”
Lynn Zellen, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky secretary of state’s office, said Kentucky law says no candidate’s name can appear on any voting machine or absentee ballot more than once in an election.
Paul sure had the look and sound of someone trying to make a national name for himself. He got a standing ovation when he said Clinton isn’t fit for higher office. He said he came to Iowa, the site of the nation’s first presidential nominating caucus, because “it’s the place where political leaders come to talk about issues that resonate nationally.” He plans to visit two other key early presidential primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, in the next few weeks.
Paul told Radio Iowa that it was coincidental that he’s going to those states, and he insisted his chief message was “how to make the Republican Party bigger.” It‘s a theme he’s been stressing repeatedly in recent months. He’s willing to discuss an immigration overhaul, and recently he spoke at Howard University, a historically black college.
“We’re winning the white vote. We’re not doing so hot with the rest of a diverse nation,” he told reporters Friday. “We have to adapt or die.”
Paul offered the dinner audience a combination of his own brand of red meat flavored with wry humor in a 20-minute talk.
Why, Paul asked, can’t President Barack Obama find money for air traffic controllers or maintaining White House tours? Why not cut a program to study rattlesnake behavior towards squirrels? Or studying the collective action of fish? “There’s hundreds of these,” Paul maintained.
He skewered Clinton, a possible 2016 rival. “They were pleading for security and got nothing,” he said of the months leading up to the Sept. 11, 2012 terror attacks in Benghazi, where four Americans were killed. Her actions, Paul said, “should preclude her from holding higher office.”
That got a standing ovation from the crowd, which cheered Paul loudly and often. “We’re ready for change, and people are looking for some middle ground. He’s a good contender,” said Mickey Johnson, a Waterloo dental hygienist.
Paul’s drive for inclusion could cause trouble with staunch conservatives who control the Iowa Republican Party, as well as much of the national party apparatus.
During his meeting with pastors, for instance, the subject of traditional marriage came up. Paul supports the notion that a marriage is between a man and woman, but he also believes it’s up to individual states to define marriage.
While the pastors uniformly praised Paul, some were wary. “That’s one area where I have some questions,” said Brad Cranston, director of Iowa Baptists for Biblical Values.
Paul also is wrestling with how to handle his father’s fervent supporters. Former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has an avid following in Iowa – they virtually control the state Republican Party machinery – but the son has some differences from the father.
He knows he can’t stray too far, but also that he has to show he’s his own person. Asked to spell out differences, he laughed, “It doesn’t make for a good Thanksgiving dinner, so I try to avoid doing that.”
One area, he said, was drugs.
“I haven’t come out in favor of legalizing drugs but I have come out in favor of saying don’t put kids in jail and lock them up and throwing away the key,” Rand Paul said. Ron Paul says that while he does not endorse drug use, he believes it’s up to parents, not the government, to stop children from using drugs.
Rand Paul also knows he can’t turn too far away from the conservative line on immigration. Paul got notice earlier this year when he urged changes, but he would not go as far as the so-called Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of senators trying to forge a compromise.
Paul, for instance, would not commit to the kind of path to citizenship the group was seeking.
“If they don’t listen to me they make a mistake. I think I’m the bridge between the House and Senate.” Among his wishes: A tougher standard for measuring border security than the Gang of Eight is proposing.
Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed.