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Why Rand Paul's greatest strength is also a weakness (+video)

Sen. Rand Paul's unconventional stands on various issues could appeal to a broad array of groups, including tea partyers, African-Americans, Millennials, and libertarians. But those stands could also appear incongruent.

If the public has learned anything about Republican Rand Paul since he announced his presidential candidacy on Tuesday, it’s that you can’t fit him into an ideological box. Barnstorming through the early primary states, he’s bashing both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the way the renegade tea party and libertarian senator from Kentucky wants it. But as his inaugural week of electioneering shows, the rigors of the campaign trail – including media scrutiny and attacks from rivals – will test his none-of-the-above strategy as a winning one.

“His overall message of liberty and adherence to the Constitution and small government appeals to a lot of people, but presidential candidates get asked lots of detailed questions about issues,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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“That’s probably going to be his downfall, because he’ll get so bollixed up with stands that seem to be incongruent that he won’t gain traction,” Mr. Cross explains. Still, “I do not write him off” as a top-tier contender for the GOP nomination, he says.

By reaching out to nontraditional GOP voters such as Millennials and African-Americans, the tousle-haired firebrand is trying to extend his support beyond the base of his libertarian father. Three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul had a fiercely loyal but narrow following.

As the younger Paul draws outside the lines on policy, he is also trying to redefine his party.

His announcement on Tuesday had something for everyone: for tea partyers, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution; for African-Americans, sentencing reform and economic growth zones in troubled cities; for libertarians and young people, a brandishing of his smart phone along with a denunciation of domestic phone surveillance.

Senator Paul also pointedly left out the social hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage that many Millennials think are either made too much of in campaigns (abortion) or are nonissues (gay marriage).

At times, Paul cut against Republican orthodoxy, especially on foreign policy. Until recently, he has struck an almost isolationist tone, but the rise of the Islamic State, and the Obama administration’s negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, have forced him to roll back or modify some of his positions.

Rivals immediately attacked the freshman senator for shifting and contradictory views on defense. The conservative advocacy group Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America launched an ad campaign excoriating Paul as soft on Iran. Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton – a potential GOP presidential competitor – told The Washington Post that Paul's ambitions are "in conflict" with his own principles and that most people who like the candidate's fiscal views "are appalled" by his foreign policy.

The media followed up with probing interviews. For instance, journalists questioned his previous support for military cuts, his characterization of Iran as not a serious threat, and his view that the United States should cut off aid to Israel – all positions he has since reversed or adjusted. The interviews drew testy and indignant responses from the candidate.

His foreign policy stance is his Achilles’ heel, some say.

“It’s hard to imagine Republicans nominating a candidate who is less of a hawk than Hillary Clinton. That’s his problem in a nutshell,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

What Paul espouses is a stand-back foreign policy that's more akin to the GOP views of the 1930s and ’40s than today, he says.

Over generations, parties change their identities, and Paul’s attempt to rebrand the GOP has its appeal as well as demographic necessity, says Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

More socially conservative blacks will find Paul attractive, and so will young voters who are turned off by a grand old party of old white men. Paul can also “appeal to people who want a maverick and don’t care that much about ideology,” Professor Voss says.

But dissing Republicans might cost him endorsements, Voss cautions. It might also hurt his fundraising.

Paul’s tea party presidential rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, has swung in the other direction, embracing the Christian right, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks. In one week, super political-action committees raked in $31 million on his behalf, one of the biggest fundraising spurts in the history of presidential campaigning.

“What we know is Rand Paul does not fit very cleanly on the scale of what normally defines a Democrat versus a Republican. He’s trying to bend the political system in his direction. The question is, can he do that,” says Voss.

If Paul were campaigning in a vacuum, that effort would be much easier. But he is not the master of his own message. As this week shows, GOP rivals, the media, and events create narratives of their own.

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