EDMONTON, Kentucky -- After responding to an audience question about Medicare reform and calling for "tough love," Rand Paul laughed at the suggestion that he better "be ready to duck."
Heeding a recent lesson from another potential 2016 presidential contender — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Paul gripped the sides of the podium and moved his head and shoulders from side to side. "You notice I'm pretty agile," Paul said to laughs. "I'm looking for shoes."
While Clinton quite literally dodged a shoe thrown at her earlier this month, Paul has in recent weeks seen a metaphorical Payless showroom thrown at him as critics to his right and left step up their attacks, both putting Paul in the hot seat and erasing any remaining doubt about whether Kentucky's junior senator is a serious candidate for 2016.
After a string of positive news and a rocket ride to front-runner status at least seven months — and probably longer — before he would make any kind of official announcement, Paul has in the last few weeks felt the harsh lights of the spotlight that come with his preseason number one ranking.
Reporters' inboxes are increasingly filled with press releases targeting Paul's record and remarks from Democratic groups, including the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a video tracker from the pro-Clinton group American Bridge films his events when he does swings through the state, and hawkish establishment Republicans have launched an all-out media blitz to damage Paul as foreign policy has retaken a top spot in the national dialogue.
Paul also has to be considered one of the losers of this year's legislative session in Kentucky, going 0-2 on issues important to him. His push to restore felon voter rights came up short, and legislation that would clarify existing law that prevents a candidate from running on the same ballot twice passed the state Senate but died in the House. Given Democratic control of the lower chamber, the latter was not a surprise, and allies of Paul's thought from the beginning that even introducing legislation would help them clarify their legal options and give them a chance to find out who is and who is not on Paul's side.
Standing in the sun outside the Metcalfe County Courthouse last week, his eyes covered by shield-style sunglasses, Paul smiled when asked about his ever-growing chorus of critics.
"I think if you're showing signs of popularity or success, those who would like to replace you with someone else will go after you," Paul told the Herald-Leader. "So I think maybe it's a sign of success to have more detractors."
Paul is unquestionably at a tense juncture as he considers a run for the White House, insisting that he is still undecided but closing his remarks at the Burkesville Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday by saying he wants "to be a part of changing who's running the country, and hopefully we can get started on a better path again."
Good start to 2014
Of the Republicans who are mentioned as potential 2016 candidates, Paul has arguably had the best start to 2014, winning key straw polls and leading or near the front of those conducted by news organizations, expanding his circle to include high-level establishment Republicans and continuing his efforts to expand both his and the Republican brand to groups who have increasingly voted Democratic.
All that activity has drawn notice. And while Paul's critics come from vastly differing ideologies, they are unified in their belief that the senator has not been adequately scrutinized for things he has said in the past.
"We've had a pretty good run of a couple of months, you know," Paul said. He noted that he enjoyed a significant victory in the CPAC straw poll, drew widespread praise for a speech he gave at Berkeley and a host of other strong moments he has enjoyed so far this year. "And I think as a consequence of that, I think people react and they try to bring you down a notch or two. But I think that's politics. It always is."
It always is now. Seemingly every day for the past two weeks, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or a leading neoconservative voice like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has eviscerated Paul's foreign policy.
It began with the crisis in Ukraine and hit a fever pitch with the recent revelation by the left-leaning publication Mother Jones that Paul gave speeches during his Senate run in which he appeared to accuse former Vice President Dick Cheney of instigating the war in Iraq to increase profits for the company Halliburton.
The DNC was happy to share a collection of some of those reviews, saying that "Paul's proposals are being derided as 'lunacy,' 'paranoia,' and 'more appropriate to a dorm-room bull session than the Situation Room' — and that's just what conservatives have to say."
A prominent conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal wrote that Paul was a candidate of "glaring disqualifications." Republican New York Congressman Peter King, said to be considering his own run for the White House, said in Politico he thinks Paul's "views would be disastrous."
"I think he appeals to the lowest common denominator," King said. "This is an isolationist wing from the 1930s. ... We do need an intelligent debate, and I don't think Rand Paul is capable of having that debate."
Paul takes exception to the neocon criticism, pushing back this week in an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Post and insisting that he is not a foreign policy isolationist and that attempts to tie his views to his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, are inaccurate readings.
Criticism stokes his fire
When asked if the intensifying criticism from some in his own party made him more or less likely to make a run, Paul said, "I don't know if it weighs into it necessarily."
"I think that it makes me more inclined to try to continue to explain myself because I think that most of the time what they're doing is putting up a straw man that they say, 'oh this what I represent, this is a bad idea,'" Paul said. "But what they're expressing as my viewpoints aren't really my viewpoints. And so when people mischaracterize your viewpoint, it makes me, I think, more motivated to say what I really am for. So we'll spend a lot of time, and we already were either way without the critics, and that's spending some time presenting what my foreign policy is and what I'm about and making sure that people don't hijack it and turn it into something it's not."
Paul's critics to his left focus less on his foreign policy and more on his controversial statements and mini-scandals that have left many Democrats scratching their heads, wondering why the hits don't seem to stick to the senator.
Ian Sams, regional press secretary for the DNC, visited Lexington last week for a country Democratic dinner. Paul is in Sams' territory and as such, he's the one leading the charge among reporters to remind them of Paul's troubles over staffer Jack Hunter, a one-time pro-Confederacy shock jock, his controversial remarks about 1960s civil rights legislation and a host of other gaffes or statements that have so far not slowed Paul's emergence as a national contender.
Once a Tea Party Republican, always a Tea Party Republican, is largely the message from Democrats.
Sams said that while Paul is "touting" himself as the candidate to broaden the Republican brand, "on issue after issue, Paul is toeing the Republican line or pushing the GOP even further to the right."
"He opposed the Violence Against Women Act and Paycheck Fairness Act but supports legislators dictating healthcare choices to women," Sams said. "He is against raising the minimum wage and expanding marriage rights to all Americans, while saying he appeals to young voters. He claims he'll make inroads with the African-American community but still believes businesses should have the right to discriminate. Does that sound like a candidate who can broaden the party's appeal?"
Gwen Rocco, communications director for American Bridge, the Democratic Super PAC allied with Clinton, said that her group is "committed to holding Republican candidates and office holders accountable for their words and actions."
"Whether it's Rand Paul's support for efforts to curb women's right to make their own healthcare decisions or his votes for budgets that would end Medicare as we know it and undermine affordable healthcare, voters deserve to know the truth about Paul's extreme agenda," Rocco said.
If the slings from either side are getting to Paul, he's not showing it.
The bruising Paul is taking is not coming from unexpected quarters, and in some cases, his critics might ultimately ensure that the senator's conservative base remains intact, more likely to take Paul's side than establishment Republicans or the mainstream media.
The senator is upbeat these days, continuing to make rebranding the GOP and growing the party a common thread of seemingly everything he does.
In his brief interview with the Herald-Leader, Paul was asked if he is satisfied with how things are shaping up should he decide to make a run.
Recent GOP record a plus
"I think one of the biggest things that we have going for us is what we've done in the past hasn't worked," Paul said, noting Republican losses in the last two presidential elections.
"We aren't doing very well. We've got to do better. So I think people are looking for something different knowing that what we ran in 2012 and 2008 didn't work."
At his stops in Kentucky, the senator continues to enjoy friendly crowds, drawing big laughs for increasingly stale jokes about the government shutdown and tales of government excess. He sticks to policy, focusing his remarks on what he sees as economically crippling Environmental Protection Agency policies and the need to reform entitlement programs.
The development that has appeared at times most likely to throw Paul off stride and threaten the fragile coalition he is building on top of a Tea Party base — a strong Matt Bevin candidacy in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race — has not come to pass.
As Paul held court in the Cass R. Walden Courtroom Wednesday, several people in the small crowd were dressed like the small group gathered outside on a corner — Bevin T-shirts and buttons.
Paulette Yates, 68, was one of those supporters of Bevin, the Louisville businessman who has struggled in his bid to take out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the May 20 Republican primary.
Yates asked Paul why he endorsed McConnell. While the senator's response that he would talk to her about politics afterward was circulated by Democrats as proof that Paul's endorsement of McConnell is tepid, he gave the same response to a question about Republican chances of retaking the U.S. Senate.
There is significant overlap among Paul and Bevin's supporters, and while it has been limited, there are Bevin backers who are furious with Paul for supporting the establishment McConnell.
Yates said after the event she understands that Paul had to endorse McConnell to make a 2016 run a possibility. But she told the senator after the event: "One thing I would say to you is be very careful you don't alienate the rest of us."
McConnell's at-times nuclear-level trouncing of Bevin has occasionally put Paul in an awkward position, and he told Yates that he understands endorsements are "difficult," adding that he hopes he'll be judged instead on his record.
"Even my dad and I, who are close, don't agree on every endorsement," he told Yates.
The good news for Paul is that one headache will last only for four more weeks as Bevin seems headed for defeat. After that, Kentuckians like Yates aren't reading or hearing the junior senator's critics. She hopes Paul will make a run even if he falls short of the White House.
"I'm not sure we're ready for that change now, but I would rather lose and take a stand," Yates said. "I think he would give them a run for their money."