Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, running for president on a platform of keeping the government out of people’s business, took a deep breath when asked at a recent stop in Philadelphia whether he’d make addressing abortion a part of his campaign.
“I didn’t run for office because of the social issues,” Paul answered. “It wasn’t what got me to leave my practice. I ran for office mainly because I became concerned that we’re going to destroy the country with debt.”
The libertarianism that launched Paul’s political career can be a tough fit with the religious right, which plays an outsized role in the primary elections to select the Republican nominee for president. In the latest Fox News poll, Paul ranked seventh in the Republican field in support among white evangelical voters, with 7 percent of them saying they’d back him.
Winning over Christian evangelicals is a dilemma for Paul as he struggles to grow his support beyond libertarian-minded voters, of whom there aren’t enough to make him a contender.
Polling during the 2012 presidential election found half the voters in the early Republican primary and caucus states identified themselves as evangelical or born-again. Paul is running against evangelical favorites such as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee.
He’ll attempt to gain support at a conference of evangelical activists this week in Washington, organized by former Christian coalition director Ralph Reed. Paul needs the backing, but he risks losing the enthusiasm of civil-liberties voters if he tries to be everything to everyone.
“Rand Paul has a lot of skills, but I think he’s got a very difficult job in front of him,” said evangelical leader Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate.
Bauer said Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy is an issue for conservatives who hold a more hawkish view on terrorism, and that some evangelicals question his commitment to Israel. He also argued that Paul and other candidates who downplay social issues in the Republican primary are making a mistake, and that “values will continue to play a major role.”
Paul, while more associated with the live-and-let-live libertarian credo, has made an effort to court evangelicals. In a recent speech to a group of pastors about what Paul called a “moral crisis” in the nation’s acceptance of same-sex marriage, he said, “The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government.”
Paul opposes abortion rights, although he said the issue is best handled by the states. He submitted a budget proposal in 2011 that would have ended foreign aid to Israel (along with every other nation that receives it) but has since changed course on that and visited Israel on a trip organized by evangelical activist David Lane.
Paul, a Presbyterian, has struggled in the past with the topic of his faith, though, telling the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in 2012 that “my faith has never been easy for me. Never been easy to talk about and never been without obstacles.”
The evangelical vote is especially important in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential caucus and is critical for a candidate like Paul who needs to gain momentum.
Evangelical voters have represented up to 60 percent of Iowa’s Republican caucus electorate in past years, said Christopher Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll in Iowa. Evangelicals define themselves in different ways but tend to see the Bible as the final authority.
Polling shows Paul in the middle of the pack among Iowa evangelicals, Budzisz said. With such a crowded Republican presidential field this election, he said, evangelicals have more choices than in 2012, when they coalesced to give Rick Santorum a victory in Iowa.
“While evangelicals will remain a vital component of the electorate, they may be more diffuse this time around as they spread out support across a number of candidates attractive to evangelicals,” Budzisz said.
Iowa pastor Mark Doland, who is doing outreach for Paul among the state’s evangelicals, said it’s a challenge.
“If you’re an oddsmaker on the evangelical vote – Huckabee was a pastor, Ted Cruz is the son of a pastor, Scott Walker is the son of a pastor, I think there are some pretty deep roots in there to try to lure some of those folks over your way,” Doland said.
But Doland, who said he was attracted by Paul’s efforts to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party beyond its traditional base, said most evangelicals have not picked a candidate. He’s optimistic that Paul’s message will find enough believers to help him build a coalition.
“If you line up 100 evangelicals, if he gets 10 to 15 percent of those, then I think that’s real good,” Doland said.