WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is just back from barnstorming Iowa, home of the earliest presidential caucus, and he’s heading next to eat barbecue in South Carolina, the first voting state in Dixie and a critical stop for Republicans who aspire to the White House.
In between, though, Paul is going about as far from the beaten political track as possible, the central highlands of Guatemala.
An ophthalmologist with a medical degree from Duke University, Paul is joining a medical mission to do eye surgeries in Guatemala as Congress continues its August break. The trip comes as Paul tries to differentiate himself from other Republican contenders, including efforts at reach out to minority groups and Silicon Valley.
Paul said he “doesn’t know” what the political implications of the trip might be, only that his work as a physician was his first passion and he doesn’t want to stop.
“It’s just something I kind of miss in my life, and I want to be able to give back,” Paul said in an interview.
He’s going with a medical team from the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah. Surgeons with the eye center do these kinds of international trips all the time, most recently in Micronesia. But bringing along an expected presidential candidate is different.
Paul’s three days of surgeries are going to be well documented. About 17 members of the press are going to accompany Paul, said Michael Yei, outreach manager for the Moran Eye Center. He said the list includes Fox News Channel host Greta Van Susteren and her crew, the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Washington Post, the National Review and the conservative website Breitbart News.
The government of Guatemala will be providing Paul with an armored vehicle and a security detail, Yei said.
Paul said the trip is an extension of his pro bono work in Kentucky, where he sometimes does eye surgeries, including three in Louisville on Tuesday.
“It’s just something I’ve been involved with for a long time and want to continue to do,” Paul said. “To keep my skills up and also to help people who don’t have insurance.”
Regardless of his own motive, the trip will have a political impact by showing people a different side of Paul, said Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican consultant.
“They won’t see him attached to just the ideological or partisan policy debates that take place in Washington,” Madden said. “He can step out of that and let people see him through a different lens, that of a doctor helping people.”
Paul has all but declared he’s running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
He just got back from Iowa, where he’s built a network of loyalists in that key state.
The latest McClatchy-Marist Poll shows Paul is competitive nationally among top Republicans who are considered possible candidates, but he needs to gain ground against the likes of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Paul leaves for Guatemala early Saturday morning and will do surgeries in the small city of Salama from Monday through Wednesday.
He’ll also meet with Guatemalan officials, including possibly the president, although he said he doesn’t have plans to talk immigration or other specific issues.
“I think we’re going to try to keep it more humanitarian,” Paul said. “I don’t know exactly what is going to come up, but it’s not intended to be any kind of policy discussion.”
The Guatemala trip came about after Paul spoke at a American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery conference earlier his year. Paul asked about with whom he could organize an international surgery mission, and he was referred to the Moran Eye Center.
“When we first talked to him he said, ‘Hey, I want to go to India,’” Yei said. “And we said, ‘Nobody wants to go to India in the summer and work. So we were thinking he could come with us on one of our other trips.”
Paul then suggested Guatemala, where the Moran Eye Center had never operated. Paul previously had done several eye surgeries in Kentucky on Guatemalan children who were brought to the U.S. for treatment through the nonprofit Children of the Americas. Paul said he’ll reunite with three of those former patients who he operated on 16 years ago and re-check their eyes and see how they’re doing.
Paul raised $20,000 through donors to help cover the Moran Eye Center’s costs for the trip, said Yei, who seemed happy to have a presidential hopeful along.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to bring attention to the global burden of blindness, because I don’t think people really realize how much of it is out there and how much of it is preventable and curable,” Yei said.
Yei said there will be nine doctors, four from the eye center and others invited by Paul. The plan, he said, is for more than 200 surgeries, mostly for cataracts.