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Rand Paul's SOTU Response: Key to Tea Party's Future?

Rand Paul's SOTU Response: Key to Tea Party's Future?

By Scott Conroy - February 12, 2013

When the Tea Party Express tapped Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to deliver its response to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, the movement it represented was not even two years old -- but at the peak of its influence in national politics.

Fresh off a mixed bag of sweeping victories and high-profile defeats in the 2010 midterms, the Tea Party had proven its ability to uproot the status quo both within the Republican Party and in Congress as a whole.

With Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul set to deliver the Tea Party’s third annual response to the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the pressure is on for the group to prove its ongoing influence, particularly amid growing criticism from establishment Republicans who accuse it of promoting unelectable candidates at the larger GOP’s expense.

In an interview with RCP, Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer acknowledged the moment’s significance.

“I really think it’s more important than ever for us to do it this year because there have been reports of the Tea Party’s demise, but we’re absolutely still here and focused and engaged,” Kremer said. “The Republican Party doesn’t represent everybody in the Tea Party movement, and they certainly don’t speak for us.”

The content of Bachmann’s 2011 speech was overshadowed by a technical hiccup: The congresswoman looked into a camera provided by the Tea Party Express, which was streaming her remarks online, rather than at the network pool camera that beamed her comments into millions of homes. The upshot was that Bachmann appeared to be speaking to someone other than viewers.

Nonetheless, CNN chose to carry Bachmann’s comments live, an indication of the regard accorded the response nationally.

But when former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain delivered the Tea Party’s response to the State of the Union last year, the event did not generate the same broad interest.

Now, with Paul eager to rev up the Tea Party engine just as a new civil war against establishment Republicans appears on the horizon, the setting will look familiar. The National Press Club will serve as the backdrop for his remarks, as was the case when Cain spoke last year.

Viewers will be able to watch Paul’s speech live on the conservative website RedState.com. Though a network pool camera will record the first-term senator’s remarks, none of the major television news networks has announced that it will air the response as it happens.

The Tea Party Express is purportedly unfazed by this apparent downgrading of interest from the media outlets it so often disparages, but the group does not deny that it wouldn’t mind having extra attention.

“We don’t depend on the mainstream media to get our message out there,” Kremer said. “This movement was born out of social media, and I think we need to utilize social media to the best we can. While we hope one of the networks goes live with it, there’s no guarantee.”

Paul will speak a few minutes after the conclusion of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s official Republican response to the State of the Union, which all of the major networks will carry, and that moment could mark either a junction or another divergence in the two senators’ careers.

When they won their seats in 2010, Paul and Rubio were heralded as two of the most prominent standard-bearers of the Tea Party movement. But as they have begun to gear up for a potential bout in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, Rubio has become a darling of establishment Republicans who increasingly look to him as the future face of the party.

Nonetheless, Paul has quietly tried to reach beyond his Tea Party base. In a sweeping foreign policy speech last week, the Kentucky lawmaker sought to appeal to a wide swath of Republicans in defining his views, apparently hoping to avoid the pitfalls that thwarted his libertarian-leaning father, Ron Paul, during the last two presidential contests.

“Some libertarians argue that Western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam -- I agree,” Paul said at the Heritage Foundation last week. “But I don’t agree that absent Western occupation that radical Islam ‘goes quietly into that good night.’ ”

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, he emphasized that his response to the State of the Union will not be in competition with Rubio’s.

“To me, I see it as extra response. I don’t see it as necessarily divisive,” Paul explained. “I won’t say anything on there that necessarily is like, ‘Oh, Marco Rubio’s wrong.’ He and I don’t always agree, but the thing is, this isn’t about he and I.”

Rubio aides have been equally deferential to Paul as Tuesday night approaches, and there is little doubt that the Florida freshman -- who will make history by delivering his official response to the president’s speech in both English and Spanish -- will enjoy the lion’s share of attention.

But if Paul does make waves either by his tone or by elucidating ways in which he differs with the wider party, his speech could mark the first significant step in defining the contours of the GOP’s 2016 presidential race. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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