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Rand Paul's Bid To Be Everything To Every Republican Voter

For two years, his top advisers have debated what the senator's presidential coalition looks like — libertarians and evangelicals, or libertarians and big business. The decision still hasn't been made.

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — When Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul officially announced his presidential candidacy from a hotel ballroom here Tuesday, it marked the beginning of a bold campaign to bridge the idealistic grassroots activists of the liberty movement with the moderate, mainstream business wing of the GOP. But that's not all.

In his newly launched bid, he will bring together conservative evangelical Christians dismayed by the "moral crisis" facing America, with a contingent of younger, secular libertarians who detest the "culture wars."

On the one hand, he will rally strident tea partiers and staunch fiscal conservatives by proving himself to be the one incorruptible true believer in the race. And on the other, he will preach big-tent Republicanism and draw unprecedented numbers of black and Latino voters into the party’s process, revealing himself to be the party’s only “electable” general-election contender.

And through it all, he will work to win over the long-skeptical establishment elites of George W. Bush's GOP by impressing them with his surprisingly successful outreach to college campuses — where he will woo students with his pitch to dismantle much of the national security complex.

For the past two years, the advisers and allies around Rand Paul have debated — quietly and heatedly — how to position the libertarian-leaning senator in the 2016 primaries. Which of the many distinct and disparate tribes of the Republican Party should he court most aggressively? How will he combine those pitches into one cohesive message? How will Rand win? But now, as his candidacy is finally here, interviews with nearly a dozen insiders suggest that the Paul camp has yet to reach a consensus on which constituencies will comprise the "Rand Paul coalition."

Paul himself often speaks of his desire to use his unique, libertarian-infused set of ideas to attract new constituencies to the national Republican Party. This mission has taken him to Silicon Valley, where he preached deregulation and internet freedom to so-called "technocrats"; to inner-city Detroit, where he called for criminal justice reform and "economic freedom zones" in distressed urban areas; and liberal campuses like Berkeley, where his rhetoric about cracking down on the National Security Agency surveillance program earned enthusiastic applause.

"We're still somewhat of a monolithic party, and we need to be more diverse in order to win," Paul told BuzzFeed News in an interview last summer. "It's not only diversity with regard to race, but it's diversity with regard to opinion, diversity with regard to working class versus business class, and all of that." In the same interview, he tested out a version of a message that has recently become central to his pitch: that his brand of libertarian conservatism makes him uniquely qualified to defeat Hillary Clinton. "You could end up with a pro-war, pro-surveillance Democrat, versus a less interventionist privacy advocate on the Republican side. If you have that, then you can have an election that goes topsy turvy."

While rhetoric like this earns Paul plenty of praise from columnists and magazine covers declaring him "the most interesting man in politics," his advisers have always known that emerging victorious from the 2016 primary will require him to cobble together a collection of more traditional Republican voters. Since 2013, there have been two predominant, dueling schools of thought about the most effective way to achieve this, according to multiple sources familiar with the strategies.

On one side, there are those in Rand world who argue his best bet is to unite his core base of libertarian activists with elements of the GOP establishment and traditional donor class. In the other camp are advisers who say conservative evangelicals — many of whom share the liberty movement's growing sense that Republican elites and mainstream moderates hold them in contempt — are a more natural fit.

Paul has spent time reaching out to both camps in recent years — alternating emphases with the ebb and flow of the ongoing debate within his inner circle — but many have told BuzzFeed News over the past year that they expected the candidate to eventually pick one approach or the other. Instead, several sources said, it appears he and his chief strategist, Doug Stafford, have decided to pursue both strategies at the same time.

"I think he's going to take it state by state," said Jesse Benton, the longtime Paul adviser who served as his father's campaign manager in 2012 and is now running the presidential candidate's super PAC. "In Iowa, you've got to reach out to evangelicals, and in New Hampshire, it's more the Romney voters."

Benton — who served for a time as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's 2014 campaign manager and has acted as a bridge between Paul and the party's leadership — has been among those pushing for outreach to the establishment.

"The biggest fundamental difference, I think, between Ron and Rand is that Rand is able to grab the sort of business Republicans in a way that Ron couldn't," Benton said. "He just strikes the business community as being more serious, and someone they can actually envision in power." With these voters it's a plus, Benton added, that Paul "doesn't want a culture war."

In the other camp is Doug Wead, who was once a key architect of the Bushes' outreach to the religious right and more recently has served on Ron Paul's campaign. One of Rand Paul's key advisers, Wead dismissed the notion that Paul could attract a significant portion of the party's corporate wing.

Wead and others argued that the recent flare-up in the national debate over religious freedom gives Paul an opportunity to effectively sell his "leave-us-alone" libertarianism to conservative Christians. They also noted speeches he has given on the need for more Christian compassion in the justice system as potentially compelling.

But Wead also conceded that — despite the hope in Rand world that such success with black voters might spark interest among the the party's moderate, pro-business "Romney voters" — the truth is that appealing to one group may sometimes come at the expense of the other. Wead said that among the black and Latino religious leaders with whom he regularly deals, one of Paul's most compelling crusades is his pledge to bust up the big business monopolies and crony capitalist policies that fill low-income neighborhoods with corporate chains like Duane Reades and McDonalds, at the expense of locally owned small businesses.

"I can't tell you how many Hispanic evangelicals have said to me, 'We're not necessarily conservative but that's a powerful message with our people,'" Wead said. "Of course, the problem is that people who are making money and prospering by gaming the economic system are not going to like it."

Stafford, who was unavailable to comment for this story, told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that winning over evangelical Christians would be a key element of Paul's campaign if he ran. "It's an important part of what Rand is doing, and Doug [Wead] is really helpful at it," he said.

But granted anonymity to speak candidly on internal strategy, some in Paul's orbit believe it's unrealistic to count on the idea that significant numbers of Democratic people of color — religious or otherwise — will flock to the candidate's economic message, especially in the primaries. Even winning conservative white evangelicals will be an uphill battle that may prove too costly in terms of time and resources, some believe.

"I worry about time getting squandered," said one Republican strategist and former Paul adviser, who has remained close to the senator. He said that it will be difficult for Paul to compete for conservative Christian voters in a field that may well be packed with devout evangelical contenders, including Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry. "I just think we're never going to be the evangelical candidate," the strategist said.

(Paul and his family attend a Methodist church when they are at home in Kentucky.)

What's more, some of Paul's allies have cringed at what they perceive to be the too-cute attempts to shoe-horn libertarian ideals into a religious pitch. One person who has been heavily involved in Paul's fundraising efforts pointed specifically to a 2012 speech at the Values Voters Summit in which the senator said that as a Christian, "I do think it unacceptable not to hate war.” The fundraiser said those remarks and others like them have sometimes unnecessarily alienated the hawkish donors with whom they are trying to make inroads — and that they do nothing to win over Christian voters in Iowa in the meantime.

The one group everyone in Paul's camp is banking on is the network of libertarian activists that he inherited from his father's series of presidential protest campaigns. Some have questioned whether the movement's purists will get as involved in Rand's campaign, given what they view as his watered-down agenda and concessions to the GOP's foreign policy establishment.

But while Benton — whose work as Ron Paul's 2012 campaign manager gave him the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the study of the libertarian grassroots — said Rand is unlikely to lose those votes to another candidate, their excitement shouldn't be taken for granted.

"As far as motivation goes, that's gonna be — I can't sit here and say right now they're going to be as fired up. It depends on how the campaign goes," Benton said, noting that even Ron Paul's small-donor fundraising didn't take off until he started to gain traction in the polls. "They're not gonna be there for him if he's sitting at 7% in Iowa, 8% nationally, and 10% in New Hampshire."

McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.

Contact McKay Coppins at mckay@buzzfeed.com.

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