In Kentucky, Rand Paul Demonstrates the Art of the Sale

The younger Paul is on the rise and on message.

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T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images

Senator Rand Paul talks with reporters as Senate Republicans and Democrats head to their weekly policy luncheon on March 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Lexington, Kentucky

In some ways you can look at Rand Paul and see his dad. The Kentucky Senator gives similarly genre-bending stump speeches that bounce from Austrian economics to the problem with foreign aid, from the perils of government to the pleasures of unfettered capitalism. But if you listen closely there are important differences between the two men, even though the policies are largely the same.

Ron Paul had a mystifying knack for whipping college-age audiences into a frenzy with dry observations about, say, raw milk or Austrian economics. He won a fervent following partly because he didn’t much care about winning anything. His son has a different talent. In a few short years in Washington, Rand — who came of age on the libertarian fringe and ran under the Tea Party banner — has become a skillful political salesman, with a feel for marketing his views to match his audience.

The genteel crowd gathered in a Lexington hotel Wednesday to hear Rand Paul address the Women Republicans of Central Kentucky was the type of crowd likely to blanch at his father’s views on cutting foreign aid, shrinking America’s military footprint or legalizing marijuana. But for Rand, they offered a warm welcome. Fresh off a month that included his electrifying filibuster challenging President Obama’s targeted killing policies, a straw poll victory at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and his recent speech unexpecedtly urging work permits and legal status for immigrants, Paul was greeted like a conquering hero. “That historic filibuster encouraged everyone that there’s still a chance to save America,” gushed Paul’s introducer.

Paul’s speech was a blend of small-government dogma, practical truth-telling (Obamacare is here indefinitely) and pure red meat: The terrorist assault in Benghazi, he said, exposed Hillary Clinton’s “errors in leadership that really should preclude her from ever holding high office again.” But it was mainly notable for the skillful way he softened his more controversial views for an audience who members have probably never heard of Guy Fawkes Day .

Like his father, Paul opposes foreign aid, a position that puts him at odds with the vast majority of his party. “I think the foreign aid doesn’t work,” he told the crowd. Eyebrows raised. But then Paul asked why the U.S. should send money to countries that burn American flags, and why we should allocate money for bridges in Egypt or Pakistan when bridges are crumbling stateside. Heads nodded; a woman in pearls murmured softly, “Amen.” Later, a disabled Vietnam veteran expressed concerns about cutting the Pentagon budget, a measure Paul favors. “To take care of veterans who come home from war, you’ve going to have to cut waste at the Pentagon and audit the Pentagon,” he said. That should include shuttering military bases, he said. “I’m not saying don’t have any,” he hastened, adding that maintaining a strong national defense was among the signal responsibilities of government. “I’m just saying maybe not 900. I mean, I’d rather have one at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox” — Kentucky installations that offer jobs in his state — “than one in Timbuktu.”

Ron Paul might have answered this question with a screed about U.S. imperialism. Rand’s lighter touch goes a long way. “Rand is more political” than his father, says an ally of both Pauls. “There were years when Ron spoke at CPAC and started in on foreign policy, and you could see the shades go down. Rand has an ability to speak that same audience and say the same thing, but do it in a way that they’ll listen.”

“When there are certain positions he has that aren’t as popular,” explains Trey Grayson, Paul’s former Senate primary opponent and now the Director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, “he’s adept at marketing it to sound less objectionable.”

It’s a talent that has lifted Paul’s status in the Senate, and it is playing equally well back home. To cement his base of support within a Republican Party that still has misgivings about libertarian doctrine, Paul must continue to win over the kind of conservatives who shunned his father as fringey. People like Shirley Wiseman, a real-estate developer who worked as assistant secretary for housing in the Reagan Administration. “I am a centralist Republican conservative,” she says. “I am not a Tea Partyer.” Wiseman was a strong supporter of Mitt Romney. She thought Ron Paul was “too far right.” But while she concedes that Ron and Rand Paul’s beliefs are similar, “I know what good conservatives are in Washington,” she says. “Rand Paul is one of those people.”