DALTON, N.H.—It was 40 degrees at the Dalton Gang Shooting Club, an outdoor range in a stupidly beautiful part of New Hampshire—all lush woods and rolling hills saturated in autumn reds and oranges—and Rand Paul was cold.
He eyed the folding table of guns and explained that he didn’t plan to shoot much, weather being what it was. Crystal Pelletier, the soft-spoken ex-Marine who was Paul’s firearms instructor for the morning, nodded in agreement and walked him through his options. Laid out before him was a Beretta Storm, a compact pistol with a recoil that made the thing feel like it might come alive and jump out of your hands, a masculine, mid-sized .357 Magnum, a Rambo-style AK-47, and an old-school muzzleloader rifle (think gunpowder and pantaloons).
Paul picked up the thick-barreled revolver, extended his arms forward, and, after a few posture adjustments from Crystal, emptied the chamber. He picked up another pistol—repeat. Next up: a semi-automatic rifle. He fired a few rounds and placed it down without much fanfare. A couple of people lined up to ask for pictures, and so he posed, gun hoisted, lips tight.
In the 36 hours I spent following the Paul campaign around New Hampshire, this became a familiar scene: The senator from Kentucky makes conversation when he’s approached but doesn’t seek it out. He doesn’t coo over cute kids or pander to younger people in the room. He’s reserved in response to other people’s enthusiasm, and tends to look bored taking pictures. In other words, his demeanor is the opposite of what we have come to expect from the people campaigning for the country’s highest office.
Rand Paul very much wants to be your president. He just doesn’t necessarily want to be your friend.
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This time last year, Time magazine declared Paul “the most interesting man in politics.” A few months after that, he won the CPAC straw poll—a kind of bellwether of Republican sentiment among its younger, libertarian-leaning contingent—easily crushing Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. (It was the third year in a row that Paul took top billing.)
But whatever momentum may have driven the campaign into existence hasn’t really materialized in the polls all these months later. Trump, whom Paul occasionally alluded to while stumping, has held his lead for the last three months. Carson is the only other candidate polling above 15% among likely Republican voters. Paul, who is also trailing Bush and Rubio, today finds himself hovering around 5%. And that has translated into low visibility. Trump’s constant brawling and Bush’s slow dive in the polls continue to dominate headlines, but Paul's campaign has largely disappeared into the media ether.
But the Granite State is a friendly place for the senator, who leans libertarian but declines to call himself one. "Don't Tread On Me" flags dot the landscape, gun shops run “Glocktober” deals and advertise machine gun rentals, and residents pay no state income tax. As a friend of mine who grew up near Concord told me, New Hampshire is a good place to live if you like to be left alone. And Paul, both privately and as an aspiring president, seems to really like being left alone.
The principle guides much of his platform. At a moment when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stump on raising taxes on wealthy Americans to help fund things like universal paid family leave, Paul has proposed a flat tax rate of 14.5% that would apply across incomes, which amounts to a healthy break for the very wealthy. (The nonpartisan research group the Tax Foundation projected that Paul’s plan, by drastically reducing the amount of taxes collected each year, would increase the deficit by $1 trillion to $3 trillion over a decade. The senator claims he would balance that with spending cuts and job creation, though he hasn’t offered much more in terms of specifics.)
Paul has an A rating from the NRA and a reliably anti-abortion voting record, cites states' rights as the reason he opposes federal protections for LGBTQ Americans, has been a leading congressional voice against the NSA's sweeping domestic surveillance program, and has partnered with unlikely allies like New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker to push for sentencing reform.
And for many of the people I spoke to during my weekend with Paul, a series of events with small crowds of mostly older, largely male, and almost universally white New Hampshire residents, that all sounded pretty good.
"Every single GOP candidate is for the Second Amendment. We need someone who cares about the Fourth Amendment," Kathy Peterson, a Nashua resident who turned out for several of the campaign events that weekend, told me when I asked her about Paul's sometimes party-defying priorities. "No other candidate's talking about the $18 trillion debt we're in. What's anybody's plan to slow down this overspending? We need to rein that in, and both parties are doing it. We can't continue this way."
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The Friday night crowd at Spare Time Manchester, a bowling alley that had been papered over in “DEFEAT THE WASHINGTON MACHINE. UNLEASH THE AMERICAN DREAM” posters, was about half Paul supporters, half bowling and beer enthusiasts minding their own business. But even the people who weren’t there for the campaign event seemed like they might be a Paul-friendly bunch. A guy smoking a cigarette outside and wearing a “I Don’t Need Sex, the Government Fucks Me Every Day” T-shirt appeared oblivious to the senator’s presence; another guy wearing a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt made small talk on the perimeter of the lanes reserved for the campaign.
Meanwhile, Paul chatted quietly with supporters and posed for pictures. When left alone, he mostly stood with his staff and waited for his turn to bowl. It was during one of these slow moments that I approached him for the first time and, trying to be affable, asked him why they had picked bowling for the evening’s activity.
It was an awkward question, and I got an awkward answer.
“We’re looking for things to do with people,” he told me matter-of-factly. “So, at nighttime, bowling seemed like the best bet.”
Paul seems most at ease, and least bored, when he’s talking about what he thinks is wrong in Washington and what he'd do differently if elected. This was true when I asked him, recovering a bit from the embarrassment of my “Hey, bowling!” introduction, about the Democratic debate and what he thought about Sanders holding strong in the polls.
“It’s good to see that socialism is alive and well,” he said dryly. “It scares me, actually, that it’s so popular.”
Sanders’ platform of social programs—paid leave, free in-state tuition—is clearly resonating with the public, I added. So what did Paul think people were responding to?
“I think there’s an appeal when people offer you something for free. They just don’t think to the next step of, ‘Where’s the free coming from?’ So if you have 1,000 college kids and tell them you’re going to give them free tuition, they’re like, ‘That sounds good, I’m for that,’” he told me. “My next question is, what about free cars? What about free clothes? Free makeup, free shoes? Everything should be free. But it can’t be free. Somebody has to pay for it.”
Paul went on to explain his market-driven approach to college education, a plan that involved a whole lot of distance learning classes. With the internet, "one professor can teach everybody in the whole world,” he told me when I asked about rising tuition costs. ”Then it should be pretty cheap to go to school.”
It was the senator’s turn to bowl. He finished his thought about tax deductions for students, picked up a ball, and casually shooed a little girl out of his lane.
But the idea of conducting most classes remotely and “beaming teachers everywhere,” as he put it, struck me as, well, a shitty educational experience, so I asked him about it again at the gun range. Paul, an ophthalmologist who still performs eye surgeries, attended Baylor University and got his medical degree at Duke. Didn’t he feel he had benefited from access to flesh-and-blood professors, his classmates, office hours?
“Do I think it’s important to have interaction? Yeah,” he told me. “I liked having interaction with teachers, and I actually liked going and having small classrooms. But let’s say there’s somebody that wasn’t as privileged as me, and wanted to go to university and wanted the same professors I had, and it could cost half as much to do online? That’s a great market solution to allowing poorer people to go to schools.”
With no college-age people in the crowd that day to weigh in on whether they wanted to be taught by a digital professor, a middle-aged man offered his own review: “That’s an excellent solution.”
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The Leave Me Alone ethos is a through-line in Paul’s approach to policy, but he also makes an awkward fit for voters looking for a purist libertarian who will keep the government out of their lives.
The senator hits the big points—low taxes that will radically shrink the size of the government, a balanced budget amendment to force change on the deficit—but holds the establishment Republican line when it comes to federal protections for LGBTQ people and is staunchly anti-abortion.
And when it comes to abortion, Paul supports a government small enough to fit inside your doctor’s office. The senator is the co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act, a bill that would endow fertilized eggs with full rights under the 14th Amendment.
It seems to be a touchy issue for Paul, one he’s tried to avoid talking about in the past. Fetal personhood, the concept at the heart of Paul’s bill, is considered extreme even among his conservative colleagues in the Senate. Colorado Republican Cory Gardner reversed course on the issue while campaigning for his Senate seat, and even the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List doesn’t really touch it during major elections. Probably because it scares voters: Personhood ballot amendments have failed repeatedly over the last few years, including in deep-red states like Mississippi.
In a recorded statement released in 2012, Paul advertised the bill as a way to “ban abortion once and for all." He continued: "You see, when the Supreme Court invented the so-called 'right' to an abortion, they left us an opening in Congress to act on the question of when life begins. … The court then admitted that if the personhood of an unborn baby is established, then the right to abort collapses, for the fetus' right to life is guaranteed specifically by the 14th Amendment."
But when I asked him about it, and used the term "personhood" to describe the Life at Conception Act, Paul balked. He called the bill consistent with the libertarian principle of "non-aggression" and said there is a role for the state to "protect a baby." It was the last question he let me ask that day. When I tried to follow up, he said he was cold, took off his mic, and walked to a car idling nearby.
But if fertilized eggs were people under the law, as they would be under Paul’s bill, then abortion at any stage in a pregnancy would be the effective equivalent of murder. So I followed up again the next day: Could doctors be jailed for performing abortions if his bill actually passed?
“No,” Paul told me curtly before climbing into his car and closing the door. His handler told me that would be it. His non-answer on personhood turned out to be our last interaction.
Paul may be reluctant to talk about the issue because it also alienates some of his libertarian base. For many of the young voters who turned out over the weekend, there was some level of confusion about Paul’s position when it came to abortion. Naomi Jeys, a comic book artist who also volunteers with Paul’s Manchester office, offered that his position on abortion might be about something else entirely.
“His position on that bill might not be a personal opinion,” she told me. ”Because I really don’t think Rand would vote for something that’s against personal freedom because he’s a libertarian.”
When I asked about her own views on reproductive health, she was unequivocal: “As a woman, I am pro-abortion, pro a woman’s choice.”
Another young couple I met, this time at an early-morning house party at the home of a Paul supporter, acknowledged that his position didn't fit with their libertarian views about reproductive health and, as they put it, "personal freedom."
“Abortion is still gonna happen,” said Josh Crawford, a 25-year-old who said he was there because he liked the senator's father, Ron, the former Texas representative who also ran for president in 2008. “You just drive it underground when you ban things. And that’s stupid. It’s America.”
“The fact that Planned Parenthood is going to be defunded because of abortion?” That is crazy," added Haley Cook, a 21-year-old who was also a Ron Paul fan. "You’re taking away the preventative stuff so you don't have to take that step.”
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It was also at that house party—in a picturesque town that was basically the New Hampshire equivalent of the Shire from "The Lord of the Rings"—that things took a turn for the semi-dramatic and Paul’s, well, Rand Paul-ness came into full focus.
There were about 20 people gathered in a small kitchen filled with family photos and vintage knickknacks, and Paul was answering a question about political corruption. A loud thud came from another room, and a woman rushed in to explain the situation: “Senator, I’m really sorry to interrupt, but a boy just passed out over here and we need a physician and not a senator.”
Paul hustled out of the kitchen. It was the most energetic I’d seen him all weekend. I hurried out after him.
The boy, a tall, lanky teen with shaggy blond hair and Buddy Holly glasses, had come to but was still in a semi-dazed state on the floor.
“What’s your name? Are you here with anybody?” Paul asked. His voice was steady; his demeanor was sober professionalism. Others crouched down to meet the kid at eye level, but the senator remained standing, hands in his pockets.
“He looks kind of pale,” Paul said, then suggested he drink some orange juice. Without much need for medical intervention, Paul started listing the different reasons people faint. Sometimes, he explained, people stand up too quickly.
The room was quiet. “A good man rushes to somebody’s aid, a weak man lets somebody else do it,” a guy in the crowd remarked. He gave the senator an approving pat on the shoulder.
Paul smiled but said nothing.
The boy’s mother arrived a few minutes later. Paul made small talk, but another woman in the crowd, clearly a friend of the family’s, took charge of filling her in on the episode. She cheerfully relayed the story of what happened to her son—the boy who would never live down the time he fainted in front of Rand Paul. There was a lull in the conversation. The senator looked the teen over one last time: “He seems to be OK." Someone gestured for him to return to the kitchen. Paul turned without another word and followed him back.