Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul proved very popular during a two-day swing visit to Florida getting big applause from GOP activists when he called for tax cuts and smaller government and accused Democrat Hillary Clinton of “dereliction of duty” before the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
But Paul, also drew sustained applause from an establishment Republican crowd when he said tough drug sentencing laws favored by many in the GOP disproportionately hurt minorities “and we’re mistaken if we don’t understand it.”
On Saturday, a crowd of a few hundred at a rally in Sarasota cheered Paul’s call for Republicans to “boldly go where we have not gone before. Republicans have given up on so many people, young people, minorities, people who live in cities, poor people, working-class people. We need to go where we’re not going.”
Rubio and Bush have made similar exhortations for the GOP to broaden its base, but largely based on conservative economic themes.
Paul said Republicans can win over new voters by advocating conservative economic policies while also championing privacy rights and a foreign policy that is cautious about military intervention.
“There is absolutely no reason for the government to ever look at your phone records without a warrant,” Paul said in Sarasota. Later, he added, “There is no reason we have to give up our liberty to stop terrorism.”
Florida is home to four potential Republican presidential candidates, former Gov. Bush, Sen. Rubio, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but Paul said there’s room in the Sunshine State for his brand of libertarian Republicanism.
“We have a lot of friends in Florida,” Paul said in an interview. “There’s a big liberty movement in Florida. These are people who believe in personal liberty, privacy, believe in a reasonable foreign policy, believe in a strict interpretation of the Constitution. So there’s a lot of those people here that I think are looking for maybe a slightly different voice than some of the others.”
Paul said he expects to announce in March or April whether he’s running for president.
President Barack Obama’s request last week for Congress to authorize military force against the Islamic State highlighted a contrast between Paul and many Republicans, particularly Rubio, on foreign policy.
Obama’s request sets a three-year time limit, but doesn’t put geographic boundaries on where the U.S. can use force.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Rubio called the time restriction “quite unprecedented” and said: “I would say there is a pretty simple authorization he could ask for, and it would read one sentence. And that is: We authorize the President to defeat and destroy ISIL, period.”
When asked about Rubio’s approach, Paul said: “That could be a million American GIs in the Middle East. It’s a mistake not to put some conditions. … Right now there are 60 different groups in 30 different countries that have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The current resolution, and for those who want no restrictions on the resolution, would allow us to put 100,000 troops in Libya. I would think we would want to vote if we’re going to send 100,000 troops to Libya.”
Since Bush has emerged as the early Republican front runner, Paul has been a leading critic and suggested there’s little difference between Bush and Clinton.
On social media last month, Paul’s PAC put out a recording of a mock phone call between Bush and Clinton, with an actress playing Clinton telling the Bush character that “We both agree on so many issues: bigger government, Common Core and amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
The faux Bush character then adds: “Well, we’ve both got problems. You’ve got problems with the grass roots, and I’ve got all those damn conservatives. What say we make a deal?”
Paul said Friday the recording “was meant to be a little humorous and a little bit of a tweak as well.”
Paul also accused Bush of hypocrisy after The Boston Globe reported on Bush’s marijuana use as a teenager at Philips Academy in Andover, Mass.
“This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana but he wants to put people in jail who do,” Paul said in an interview.
In his Friday speech at the Orange County GOP Lincoln Day dinner, Paul called for reforming drug sentencing laws and civil forfeiture programs that allow police to confiscate property from people accused of drug crimes before they are convicted.
“When we talk about how we’re going to expand the Republican Party, I tell people one of the things is we have to have compassion. We have to show it. We have to understand when things are not fair,” Paul said.
“I think there are problems in our criminal justice system. We have people sometimes being put in jail for 50 years for the sale of marijuana. I’m not up here to promote marijuana or say it’s good. But I am up here to say that predominantly, the people that are going to jail for these crimes are black, brown, poor white. … It’s not an overt racism. It’s an inadvertent outcome. But it is a racial outcome. And we’re mistaken if we don’t understand it.”
Paul added: “Many of us in here for religious reasons believe in redemption and second chances. I think we do need to be the party of second chances. … If we have some compassion and think about these issues, there are people on the evangelical right who are for sentencing reform. This isn’t a liberal idea.”