MANCHESTER, N.H. — There’s an obnoxious game that politicians play around the halfway point between presidential elections. They dangle the possibility of making their own White House run with a wink and a nudge — not to mention a steady diet of airplane pretzels — as they zip between early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Then they brush aside political reporters who ask them if they’re considering a presidential bid, quizzing them as to why they’re always so obsessed with politics.
“What I’m doing is very simply thanking and encouraging grassroots activists,” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said innocently in Manchester Saturday when asked if he was testing the presidential waters during a weekend swing through New Hampshire. While there, he met with state party officials and spoke at a conference of conservative activists.
Cruz may very well choose not run for president in 2016, but let’s get real. The guy’s not test-driving New Hampshire for a joy ride. Those Live Free or Die tires are feeling the swift kick of a pair of black Texas-made ostrich-skin boots.
Not to pick on Cruz. His finely tuned answer is the descendent of a long line of genially vague quotes from aspiring presidents who’ve said the same sort of thing over the years. But Cruz's answer contrasts sharply with the way Rand Paul, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky and son of failed three-time presidential contender Ron Paul, is approaching his own possible run. “I’m seriously considering it,” Paul regularly tells anyone who asks. Aides who work for him are equally up front about his goal in private. His travel schedule, which regularly includes stops in Des Moines and Manchester, suggest that he’s working toward a White House run.
In New Hampshire right now, it is a period of calm before the storm. Party activists here from both major political parties are focused intently on winning the midterm elections this November, although they don’t mind a little titillating presidential foreplay in the duller moments. Potential presidential candidates aren’t yet intensively locking down field reps, although they are window shopping with the intent to buy when the time is right. Two aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Matt Mowers and Colin Reed, recently started working in New Hampshire politics — Mowers as the executive director of the state party and Reed as an aide to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown. In Iowa, Paul recently picked up the state's Republican Party chairman, A.J. Spiker, to work for his PAC. It was a coming home of sorts for Spiker, who co-chaired former congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign in Iowa in 2012.
For now, Sen. Paul’s focus is on expanding the appeal of his party, which has had branding problems of late, particularly among single women, minorities and young voters. He has taken a cue from his father, an unimposing little man in his 70s with a baffling knack for attracting university arenas full of students, by speaking at colleges across the country. In the wake of revelations of the federal government’s domestic spying program, he sees a unique opportunity for Republicans to reach young people who don’t want the feds snooping on their iPhones.
“It’s an area where we can connect with people who haven’t been connecting. Obama won the youth vote 3 to 1, but he’s losing them now,” Paul told a gathering of New Hampshire Republicans in Dover on Friday. “Hillary Clinton’s as bad or worse on all of these issues. It’s a way we can transform and make the party bigger and win again. But we have to be as proud of the Fourth Amendment as much as we are the Second Amendment.”
Other Republicans seem to be taking notice. On Saturday in Manchester at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, a conference for conservative activists hosted by Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity where Paul, Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and several other well-known Republicans spoke, most speakers devoted sections of their remarks to the National Security Agency’s spying program.
While Paul strives to reach young voters, his travels have taken him to historically black colleges, where he has spoken out against the ongoing federal drug war and imprisoning of millions of young black men for nonviolent crimes. It is through this message, Paul says, that Republicans can find an opening with a constituency that has largely voted as a bloc for Democrats since the civil rights era. Some of this push is also reactive: Paul has previously come under fire for making controversial comments about the Civil Rights Act, and Democrats think he is extremely vulnerable on racial issues. But that doesn't mean Paul's views are insincere or will have no impact on GOP thinking longer-term.
“I truly do care about the injustice and what it’s done to voting,” Paul told me when we met Friday at a pizza place in downtown Manchester. “Everyone’s talking about voter ID. Voter ID is one-one thousandths of the problem compared to felony disenfranchisement. I think there’s 150,000 people in Kentucky who can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Probably half or more are black.”
A number of high-profile Republicans have begun to explore Paul’s ideas about prison reform, albeit cautiously. In the Senate, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Utah Sen. Mike Lee have teamed up with Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin on a bill to reduce minimum sentencing requirements. In the states, Republican governors around the country, particularly outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, are re-examining their own state laws on how the government handles drug cases.
Changing or reforming these laws, of course, won’t transform the GOP into a less white and less old party overnight, but it does give Republicans something to talk about with new constituencies.
And Paul isn’t just interested in growing the party by wooing people of color. He wants the party to move beyond calls for ideological purity, even if it means giving party blessings to members who stray from the official platform.
When asked by a reporter on Friday in Dover about Republicans who support same-sex marriage, Paul replied: “I think the party’s a big party and can include people with a variety of opinions. I think that in some ways we need to agree to disagree on some of these issues, in the sense that the party needs to be bigger, we need to understand that people have somewhat of regional attitudes towards the issues. … I think there’s an arrogance to having an absolute litmus test.”
Paul's call for openness reflects a growing understanding that the party will need to present itself differently if it hopes to win at the national level again. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist conservative who opposes allowing same-sex couples to marry and who recently questioned President Barack Obama’s commitment to faith because the president changed his views on the matter, also called for more ideological room within the party when asked similar question in Manchester on Saturday.
“There’s room in the party for people to have different viewpoints, there always has. I don’t know why we would suddenly have this moment where we would start acting as if there’s only a few viewpoints that are valid,” Huckabee said. “As far as in the general election, I think it’s nonsense that people would vote against someone because of an issue that a president would probably not have a lot of input on anyway.”
So what does all of this have to do with Paul’s presidential ambitions? Plenty. Paul is steadily working to carve an important niche among Republicans as a voice in the ongoing effort to remake the party at the national level. To win a general election, presidential candidates need to appeal to broad swaths of voters — not just hardcore conservatives — and Paul, who on many issues is a hardcore conservative, is crafting a plan that he thinks will do just that.
And yet Paul’s most skeptical audience may well be inside the Republican Party itself. Much of what he emphasizes is new territory for members of a party who have long embraced the mantle of being “tough on crime.” The party has also celebrated surveillance measures enacted under President George W. Bush that some members now decry as overreach when carried out under Obama.
Conservatives who embrace the party’s traditionally robust foreign policy stance have severe reservations about Paul's quest for executive power and views that the U.S. should play a more limited role abroad. Republican donors who gathered last month at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, Nev., expressed concern over Paul’s rise, telling Time magazine that they may have to undertake concerted efforts to undermine his political ambitions over such positions as cutting off all U.S. aid to Israel and other countries. Republican mega donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Time reported, is considering spending massive sums to keep Paul from becoming the GOP nominee.
In response, Paul insists that those concerned about his foreign policy views just need more time to hear him out. Paul plans to discuss these issues with Adelson himself in the future, he said.
“When he gets to know me, he’ll like me too,” Paul told me.
I asked Paul about the time Christie called his foreign policy “dangerous” and when former U.S. ambassador to the U.N John Bolton described Republicans like Paul as “unfit to serve.” (Both men, particularly Christie, harbor presidential ambitions of their own.)
“The people who are saying that are the dangerous people,” Paul said. “The people who wake up at night thinking of which new country they want to bomb, which new country they want to be involved in, they don’t like restraint. They don’t like reluctance to go to war. They really wouldn’t like Ronald Reagan if they read anything he wrote or were introduced to it.”
So it goes, and so it will go with greater intensity the closer these aspiring politicians get to presidential primary season. In these intervening years, party members will snipe and engage in acts of friendly fire as they skirmish over the soul of the Republican Party. All that will come to an end once Democrats choose their own nominee, at which time Republicans will, for a brief period of months in 2016, suddenly agree on everything until the second week of November.