By STEVE PEOPLES and TAMMY WEBBER
CHICAGO (AP) — He infuriated Republican leaders by almost single-handedly delaying the extension of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act. Now, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is fighting to transform his recent Capitol Hill victory into momentum with presidential primary voters.
Tangling with a complicated issue that divides the public, Paul does not have an easy task.
Yet he’s seized the opportunity in interviews across the country this week before another showdown in Congress. And as he courts voters in three states, the 52-year-old Republican is putting new distance between himself and the rest of his party’s presidential hopefuls.
Voters are noticing.
“I think some of his ideas are a breath of fresh air,” said Corey Brooks, an African-American pastor on the South Side of Chicago, where Paul campaigned on Wednesday. “His views are diametrically opposite of what Republicans tend to say and do, and I think it’s a good thing.”
Paul has aggressively sought black support as he attempts to craft a unique coalition of younger voters and minorities.
He says the Republican Party’s reputation “sucks” in a book released this week that blames the GOP for letting its relationship with minorities “fray to the point that it is near beyond repair.” Yet it’s unclear how far his civil liberties focus resonates beyond the libertarian-leaning voters who supported his father’s presidential ambitions.
In any event, Paul’s passionate defense of civil liberties remains the centerpiece of his platform.
He stood on the Senate floor for nearly 11 hours last week, bucking leaders in his own party, to protest the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program that monitors Americans’ phone records.
His delaying tactic forced Senate leaders to adjourn for the week with no resolution on the Patriot Act, parts of which are set to expire Sunday night.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has summoned the Senate to return for a rare Sunday session just hours before the midnight deadline. Expiration would mean suspension of a program revealed by Edward Snowden that collects data on every American landline call, as well as of two FBI programs to track terrorist suspects.
Paul’s allies hyped the Sunday session in a digital ad released Friday that likens the debate to a professional wrestling match.
“Watch them battle it out under the dome on the floor of the United States Senate in the brawl for liberty this Sunday,” the narrator says in a professional wrestling-style ad produced by America’s Liberty PAC, a super PAC run by Paul’s former campaign manager.
The ad super imposes Paul’s head on the body of a wrestler, while describing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as “the capitulating Canadian” and depicting South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in a purple Geo Metro convertible.
Emboldened by last week’s stand, Paul lashed out at the leaders of his own party this week while campaigning in Illinois, Iowa and South Carolina. His campaign also intensified its fundraising operation to help cash in on the attention. Even in the midst of last week’s Senate marathon session, Paul took to Twitter to invite supporters to buy $30 “Filibuster Starter Packs” with a bumper sticker, T-shirt and a “spy blocker” for Internet browsers.
Appearing on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Paul charged that many Republicans have abandoned their small-government credo in the national security debate. He’s also blamed Republican national security hawks for the rise of the Islamic State group.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a radio interview on Thursday that people like Paul who oppose the Patriot Act “have a severe case of amnesia” regarding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A day earlier, another potential rival for the GOP nomination, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said Paul was “unsuited to be commander in chief.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus doesn’t necessarily agree.
“I think Rand Paul is a fighter, he always has been,” Priebus told The Associated Press. “I don’t think he’s hurting anybody. He is an elected senator that is leading on a number of issues in this country. … Most people admire the fact that he’s trying to lead.”
Yet on government surveillance at least, it’s unclear how closely voters are following Paul’s efforts.
In a March 2014 Pew Research Center poll, just 19 percent of Americans said they were following “reports about the U.S. government’s phone and Internet surveillance programs” very closely, while more than half were not following closely.
“Sen. Rand Paul will follow the Constitution over any poll,” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said, suggesting that public opinion is shifting.
Indeed, Paul has been railing against government intrusion of civil liberties for much of his brief political career, just as he did in Chicago this week, where the reaction was mixed.
“Most people in our community would say we don’t want government all in our business, but that’s not first and foremost on our agenda,” said Brooks, the pastor.
Afterward, an audience comprised largely of young entrepreneurs broke into applause when Paul’s so-called filibuster was mentioned. William Glennan, a 25-year-old welder from Texas, said Paul was refreshing.
“It’s a younger message. I like it because he’s splitting away from the traditional Republican Party,” Glennan said. “I think everybody’s getting sick of the old-school Republicans.”
Peoples reported from Washington.
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