Tough talk and fearless politics have made Senator Rand Paul a leader in the Republican Party. Could he—and his charming, secret-weapon wife, Kelley—win the White House?
On a sunny Saturday in July, Rand Paul and his wife, Kelley Ashby, are taking a long drive across Kentucky horse country. When their white SUV, bearing a “Stand with Rand” sticker on the rear windshield, pulls up to a small political rally in rural St. Catharine, the state’s junior senator climbs out with pursed lips, mussed hair, and a generally weary look on his otherwise boyish face. A bluegrass band strikes up a tune, and Paul gets into character, which is to say, he acts exactly the same as when he lumbered out of the car or, for that matter, stopped on the road for pretzels.
“Well, hello,” Paul says mildly to one attendee. “I think I’ve been to your house before.” A supporter approaches to congratulate Paul on the “fine job” he did during his blockbuster filibuster in March, when he railed against President Obama’s use of drones for nearly thirteen uninterrupted hours on the Senate floor.
“My feet hurt for days,” Paul deadpans.
Wearing dad jeans, a snail-patterned tie, and cuff links fashioned from gold coins given to him by his mother and father, the former congressman and libertarian folk hero Ron Paul, the senator accepts another compliment on his resistance to government surveillance. “I appreciate it,” says Paul in his Texas drawl. “I’m a strong supporter of the Constitution.”
The speech he’ll deliver here is replete with polished laugh lines about wasteful government spending on a “$325,000 robotic squirrel” to study animal behavior, zingers about Washington’s being run by people with “big hearts and small brains,” and red meat such as his refusal to give “one penny more for countries that are burning our flag.”
None of this is particularly new. But what has changed since Paul first shocked the political establishment by winning his Senate seat in 2010 is the air of expectancy around him—one that becomes palpable as the banjos stop, the crowd hushes, and a local official comes to the podium to introduce Paul as “our senator, considered by many to be the next president of the United States.”
The notion of President Rand Paul would once have been absurd. Three years ago, he was a Kentucky ophthalmologist mounting an outsider campaign for Senate, still very much in the shadow of his father. But the younger Paul rode a Tea Party wave to Washington, and quickly became the movement’s most intriguing and charismatic spokesperson—an ambassador for libertarian values who takes obvious relish in skewering critics, regardless of their political affiliation. While his father was content to remain a dissenting voice from the margins—or from one end of countless presidential-debate stages—Rand clearly wants to win. His stunningly swift rise in the GOP also amounts to one of the most fascinating tightrope walks in national politics. On the one side is his raucous Tea Party base. On the other is his courting of donors, establishment Republicans, and traditional Democratic constituencies.
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