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[Newsmaker] Rand Paul's libertarian crusade

LOUISVILLE ― Instead of an American flag, Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul wears a red penny in his lapel, symbolizing the core of his philosophy: no more runaway debt and total submission to the U.S. Constitution.

“We say they’ve taken all our money. We don’t have one red cent more to send them in Washington,” the conservative Kentucky senator said in 2010 shortly after a crushing poll win.

Paul’s launch of his presidential candidacy on Tuesday follows that of Texan fellow senator Ted Cruz, who announced his own two weeks ago.

Both are appealing to conservative and libertarian Tea Party voters for a ticket to next year’s race to the White House.

Paul lacks the charisma of some of his Republican rivals. He rarely smiles, and often rushes his speech. 

U.S. Senator Rand Paul formally announces his candidacy for president during an event in Louisville, Kentucky, Tuesday. (AFP-Yonhap)
U.S. Senator Rand Paul formally announces his candidacy for president during an event in Louisville, Kentucky, Tuesday. (AFP-Yonhap)

But what he lacks in spark, he makes up for with passionate supporters ― full of zeal and younger than the average Republican voter.

The 52-year-old doctor was sent to Washington by voters furious with the national debt, and anxious over what Paul sees as government zeal for war and encroachment on American civil liberties.

Now, with political ambitions extending beyond Congress, Paul wants to translate his appeal to the national stage.

Only five years ago, barely a handful of Tea Party ultra-conservatives had heard of the ophthalmologist from Bowling Green, Kentucky ― population 61,000 ― who often challenged Republican Party orthodoxy.

His father Ron Paul is a firebrand former congressman from Texas, himself a three-time White House aspirant and opponent of the welfare state, and the man to whom the senator owes his political education.

“My dad has always been my dad and my political hero,” Paul wrote in his 2011 book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”

“I had been Tea Party before Tea Party was cool,” he wrote.

When he arrived in the Senate in January 2011, the freshman took action that grabbed the attention of Washington watchers.

“President Rand Paul,” the New Republic magazine proclaimed in 2013. Time magazine later declared him “the most interesting man in American politics.”

His political stock soared in March 2013 when he gave a 13-hour Senate speech to block confirmation of the CIA director over the Obama administration’s policy on aerial drones.

Supporters quickly exhorted others to “Stand with Rand” and his opposition to abuses by the National Security Agency, a position applauded by civil liberty defenders.

The senator fancies himself a “libertarian-ish” Republican and a “constitutional conservative” ― he denounces federal government abuse of power and seeks to reduce its regulatory role.

In foreign policy, he has long been in favor of U.S. disengagement, going as far as proposing an end to all U.S. foreign aid.

He deplores the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has harsh words for the war’s neo-conservative architects.

He also blasts Hillary Clinton ― perhaps his most likely Democratic White House rival should she run ― as a “war hawk” for fueling calls for regime change in Syria.

Paul rejects the isolationist label, however. He has been known to cite president Ronald Reagan in insisting that dislike of war is not lack of resolve.

In an interview with AFP in 2013, he defended a realistic international approach with “a less aggressive foreign policy.”

His rival Senator Marco Rubio ― another 2016 hopeful ― accused Paul, without naming him, of backing the military operation against the Islamic State extremist group in large part because the American public supports it.

“Paul changes his position seemingly by the hour,” sneered Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic Party.

But with his reputation for fealty to the Constitution, Paul has demanded an urgent debate and vote on the authorization of the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

He said the White House currently lacks the necessary authority to engage the jihadists without a congressional green light.

Paul has gone out of his way to engage with minority groups, holding a series of listening sessions with African American community leaders.

He advocates criminal justice reform to help break the cycle of prison-unemployment-poverty that plagues many black youth, campaigns against mandatory minimum sentencing laws and seeks a restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts with non-violent offenses.

“We must realize that race still plays a role in the enforcement of the law,” he said.

Democrats contest the sincerity of Paul’s dedication to civil rights issues, saying he is courting votes of an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency.

The efforts allow Paul to reintroduce his party and its values, as was evident at a gathering at historically black Howard University last year.