Rand Paul quits upcoming GOP debate. Smart move or desperate?

Polling at 3 percent, the Kentucky senator lost his spot at the primetime event, as did Carly Fiorina. Rather than be relegated to the undercard debate, he opted out.

Nati Harnik/AP
Sen. Rand Paul, (R) of Kentucky, speaks during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa Jan. 7. Paul and former technology executive Carly Fiorina will not appear at the primetime debate in South Carolina Thursday. Rather than appear at the undercard event, Paul said he would not attend at all.

Rand Paul is still running for president. But he won’t be appearing in the next Republican debate, set for Thursday on Fox Business Network.

Why is the Kentucky senator passing up a chance to appear on 1-1/2 hours of national television for free? Because Fox relegated him, along with Carly Fiorina, to the undercard debate, that’s why. Senator Paul says he won’t accept that demotion.

Rules call for only seven candidates to appear in the main event, and neither Paul nor Ms. Fiorina made the cut. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich did qualify, the latter due to his strength in New Hampshire state polling.

“We will not participate in anything that’s not first-tier,” Paul told Politico.

Paul’s decision to take his libertarianism home and not continue to play the GOP game did elicit a fair amount of social media snark, given that he’s fallen under 3 percent in national polls.

“Uh, Rand? Your campaign is not first-tier, but you’re participating in that,” wrote Laura Clawson in a post on Daily Kos.

Andrew Kaczynski tweeted out a poll question: “Better Rand Paul nickname while he complains about debate?”

The choices listed were “Also Rand” and “Whinestone Cowboy.”

Funny stuff aside, Paul’s move probably makes sense, given the circumstances. He’s not catching fire as it is. He’s got to do something drastic to get a second look from GOP voters if he’s going to make any progress at all in the race.

That probably was not going to happen within the debate confines. Even if he’d managed to make the cut, Paul would have been shuffled to the edge of the stage, where he’d have struggled to gain attention and airtime. The action on Thursday will be at the center, with Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz competing for front-runner status and Mr. Bush, Senator Rubio, and Governors Christie and Kasich struggling to emerge as a consensus establishment alternative.

Remember, the debate is not just an end in itself. It’s also a means to get media coverage. And Paul may get more coverage by loudly dropping out. (Witness this story.)

Plus, he gets to bash the media, which is always an applause line with GOP voters. His campaign’s statement announcing his withdrawal decision said that Paul “would not let the media decide the tiers of this race.” He’s already fundraising off this framing of the story, sending out electronic pleas for $2 or $5 to help prevent news organizations from determining the outcome of the election.

That said let’s pause for a moment to consider just how far Paul has fallen. Not long ago he was “the most interesting man in politics,” according to a Time Magazine cover story. He was going to mesh his libertarian and noninterventionist values with traditional conservatism to meld a new and different kind of Republican ideology.

But Donald Trump is the man who’s changing the GOP, and in a very different manner. Meanwhile, Paul may be just postponing the inevitable as he trudges on toward the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

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