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The Peril and Promise of Rand Paul on Display in N.H.

The Peril and Promise of Rand Paul on Display in N.H.

By Scott Conroy - September 13, 2014

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Rand Paul was on a roll. 

As he addressed the crowd of young, well-lubricated activists who packed the bar at a minor league baseball stadium here Thursday night, the Kentucky senator’s Anthony Weiner jokes were hitting their target just as squarely as his diatribes against the NSA’s eavesdropping program.

It was easy to see how he might get carried away.

And then he did.

As the event neared its conclusion, Paul took a question from a young man in the crowd, who opened his inquiry with a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the “rumor going around” that the politician they had all come to see might run for president in 2016. 

“Man, who started that?” Paul shot back in feigned annoyance, ever hip to the joke.  

“You spoke for a bit on the executive orders tonight,” the young man continued. “If you were to receive the presidency, would you repeal previous executive orders and actually restrain the power of the presidency?” 

Paul didn’t have to think very long before coming up with an answer that would exhilarate both the khaki-clad, Alex P. Keaton look-alikes in the crowd and their anti-establishment, fashionably bespectacled counterparts.  

“I think the first executive order that I would issue would be to repeal all previous executive orders,” Paul said to booming cheers.  

It was just the sort of punchy, memorable line that was guaranteed to get a resounding response from the crowd on hand. And it accomplished just that. 

But did he really mean it?  

In an interview with RealClearPolitics the next morning, Paul at first suggested that he indeed had been honest about getting rid of over two centuries of executive orders, if he were to be sworn in as the 45th commander-in-chief in 2017. 

“It’s a nice idea,” Paul said. “You would obviously have to look at all of the executive orders to see that there’s not something in there. But the thing is, you could sunset them all and really repeal them all, and then you could start over. And if there are any ones that are good, you could reinstitute things or ask Congress to reinstitute things that need to be done.” 

But did that mean Paul would be OK with nixing -- temporarily, at least -- President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation?  

Or what about President Truman’s order to desegregate the military? 

Paul’s eyes widened a bit, as if to confirm that he hadn’t quite thought it completely through. 

“Well, I mean, I think those are good points, and it was an offhand comment, so obviously, I don’t want to repeal the Emancipation Proclamation and things like that,” he said. “Technically, you’d have to look and see exactly what that would mean, but the bottom line is it’s a generalized statement that I think too much is done by executive order, particularly under this president. Too much power has gravitated to the executive.” 

Paul’s injudicious rhetoric might not garner much attention in September 2014, but if he had made the remark, say, a year from now, the damage to his widely assumed presidential candidacy might have been significant.  

Though his own brand of libertarianism is somewhat more carefully calibrated than the pure and unabashed strain that his father doled out on the campaign trail, Rand Paul figures to be a candidate who will live closer to the edge than most of his competitors for the 2016 nomination. 

The inherent risks in that approach are clear.  

But Paul’s unrestrained approach also appears to be just what many Republicans in the first-in-the-nation primary state are looking for.  

With the 2016 campaign still months from starting, Paul has already come a long way in positioning himself as an acceptable option to elements of the party who flat-out rejected his father.

It was not so long ago, for instance, that the idea of Rand Paul being offered the keynote speaking slot at a “Republican unity event” would have been a non-starter.  

He is, after all, the man who took on the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate in the 2010 Kentucky Senate primary and the son of a man who was practically laughed off the stage by the “serious” presidential contenders during the 2008 GOP primary debates.  

But here Paul was on Friday, headlining the New Hampshire GOP’s traditional post-midterm primary event, which is designed to show that all Republican candidates in the state are now in harmony.  

In the Republican Party of 2014 -- in New Hampshire, at least -- Rand Paul has become a unifier.

“Maybe four years ago, or eight years ago, people said, ‘Oh, we want these liberty people out of our party,’” he told RCP. “Now they realize we’ve got to have new people in our party. And if we can get along, we can become a bigger party -- particularly in New Hampshire, where there’s a big ‘liberty movement,’ they’re actually working pretty well together.” 

Though the applause of Friday’s breakfast crowd may have been considerably less boisterous than that of the Miller Lite-fueled shouts that permeated Thursday night’s event, there was nary a buttoned-up Granite State Republican official inside the jampacked banquet facility here who didn’t applaud along with Paul’s remarks, which were culled straight from the central tenets of the liberty movement. 

“Please stand, if you’re unified in defense of the Constitution,” Paul told the crowd. “Please stand if you’re unified in defense of the Bill of Rights. Please stand if you’re unified in the defense of individual liberty.”

No one remained in their seats.  

In this setting, it was clear that any lingering doubts about Paul’s viability as a mainstream contender for the nomination have been quashed.  

“Rand has shown, not just by coming here today, but over the last couple years coming to New Hampshire, that his focus is growing the party and making a stronger America,” said former U.S. Rep. Frank Giunta, who is running this year to win back his seat in New Hampshire’s 1st District. “I think it’s fantastic.” 

Though they have been ideological sparring partners on hot-button issues ranging from foreign policy to drug laws and domestic surveillance, Paul shares something in common with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- the man he appears destined to square off against for supremacy in New Hampshire next year. 

Both men are political rock stars in a party that badly needs them.  

“There’s no question that Rand Paul definitely speaks to the heart of a lot of people in our party,” said New Hampshire GOP Chairman Jennifer Horn. “In New Hampshire, the GOP has always embraced the full spectrum of Republicans, and this is maybe emblematic of that.” 

To demonstrate the extent to which Paul has positioned himself as an across-the-board Republican leader, and not just an ideological visionary, Kentucky’s junior senator spent Friday afternoon at the University of New Hampshire where he touted his endorsement of Scott Brown for Senate.  

Though some conservatives have long derided Brown for his moderate positions on social issues, gun control and other perceived apostasies, Paul was eager to remind his audience that it was the former Massachusetts senator’s staunch opposition to Obamacare that first made him famous in Republican circles.  

“You tend to remember the 15 percent of the time you disagree with somebody and forget about the 85 percent of the time you agree with them,” Paul told RCP. “So I think most Republicans will find that 85 percent of the time, they will agree with Scott Brown. And probably he and I will agree, maybe 85 percent of the time.”

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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