MILFORD, N.H. — Less than 24 hours after Rand Paul announced his White House bid before hundreds of jubilant, flag-waving supporters, his fledgling presidential campaign seemed to be defined more by his defiant performance when the cheering stopped.
In a series of interviews after the freshman senator from Kentucky declared his candidacy on Tuesday, Paul turned prickly — briskly sidestepping tough foreign policy questions from one journalist, lecturing another on how to conduct an interview, and testily declining to clarify his position on abortion.
And so, as Paul’s first full day of campaigning drew to a close, the narrative surrounding his campaign came straight from the candidate. It just wasn’t one he’d chosen himself.
Rand Paul has never been one to shy away from confrontation. He launched his political career on an anti-establishment message. He’s gained renown for trolling his political opponents on social media. Even the first half of the slogan for his presidential campaign skews combative: “Defeat the Washington machine.”
But the rocky media rollout of his presidential effort highlighted a key question facing him now: whether the same tough approach that has made him a favorite among tea party activists and libertarians might be limiting in a national campaign, as he looks to build a broader coalition rich with voters from beyond his base.
On Tuesday, hours after his campaign launch, Paul bristled at a question from Fox News host Sean Hannity about a 2007 comment in which he’d dubbed the idea that Iran posed a threat to U.S. security a “ridiculous” one. Paul was one of 47 Republican senators who recently signed a letter aimed at derailing a deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program, drawing scrutiny over his hawkish turn.
“You know, things do change over time,” Paul said. “I also wasn’t campaigning for myself [in 2007], I was campaigning to help my father at the time.”
Hours later, he pushed back even harder amid similar foreign policy questions from “Today” host Savannah Guthrie.
“Before we go through a litany of things you say I’ve changed on, why don’t you ask me a question: ‘Have I changed my opinion?’ That would sort of be a better way to approach an interview,” Paul told the NBC journalist.
(The exchange drew immediate comparisons to a similar conversation in February with CNBC anchor Kelly Evans, when, during a back-and-forth about the effectiveness of a tax program, Paul at one point shushed the reporter, telling her to “calm down a bit.”)
Later Wednesday, an Associated Press reporter asked Paul about possible exceptions to abortion restrictions. In the past, Paul has indicated that he would support some exceptions. On Wednesday, he appeared unwilling to elaborate.
“The thing is about abortion — and about a lot of things — is that I think people get tied up in all these details of, sort of, you’re this or this or that, or you’re hard and fast [on] one thing or the other,” Paul said.
When the reporter persisted, Paul replied tightly: “I gave you about a five-minute answer. Put in my five-minute answer.”
In contrast to his testy media exchanges, Paul has tended to sport a cool demeanor on the campaign trail, one less than comfortable with the glad-handing and backslapping that are the hallmark of retail politics. The questions here can sometimes grate as well — he will, at times, appear skeptical or slightly bored with voters’ queries — but he will occasionally praise one on a subject he’s ready to talk about. He delivers his answers quietly and slowly. The answers sometimes are long. In some speeches and answers to queries he includes references to economists or historical figures and, in New Hampshire last month, cited the Czech writer Milan Kundera at a dinner.
So if he can handle voter questions, does it really matter how he responds to those from the news media — or, on some future debate stage, from presidential rivals?
After all, noted Katie Packer Gage, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012 and co-founder of Burning Glass Consulting, primary-season voters often respond well to Republican candidates who are aggressive with the news media — as then-White House contender Newt Gingrich found when he took on CNN’s John King during a presidential primary debate three years ago.
Tuesday night, Paul came out swinging. “The media tells you and I that we should choose a GOP nominee with a track record full of sellouts, compromises and betrayals,” he tweeted. “So even though I’m at or near the top of every state poll for the nomination, they continue to try and dismiss my message of liberty!
“Thankfully, our national media doesn’t get to pick and choose our Republican Party’s presidential nominees. Patriots like YOU do!”
But by the end of the day Wednesday, the candidate seemed to recognize that perhaps that approach was bringing the wrong kind of attention to his nascent campaign, conceding that he often didn’t handle tough questions particularly well. “I’ve been universally testy and short-tempered with both male and female interviewers,” he admitted to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Gage echoed Paul’s description, saying that in the interview with Guthrie, the senator had seemed to “come across as a bit of a bully. I don’t know if that’s specific to her being a woman, or incredibly bad manners.”
It’s an approach that usually fails to deliver in the long run, she added. “I think particularly when you’re trying to appeal to women voters, they’re a little turned off by that level of aggressiveness when it comes across as cranky and mean,” she said.
Williams reported from Washington.