While many Republicans celebrated Tuesday's Senate primary win by
North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, Paul scrambled to save
face after the candidate he backed, Greg Brannon, finished a distant
second in the battle for the right to challenge vulnerable
Democratic Senator Kay Hagan.
"Now that the primary is over, it is time for our side to unite to
defeat the Democrat who cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, Kay
Hagan," Paul said in a statement.
Paul had put his growing party clout on the line at an appearance on
Monday with Brannon, whom he praised as a "hero" despite his history
of provocative statements like calling President Barack Obama a
fascist and contending the constitutional right to bear arms extends
to nuclear weapons.
Given that Brannon was precisely the type of risky and divisive
candidate the party's mainstream leaders are striving to avoid this
year, Paul's endorsement was a mystery to many Republicans and a
sign of the difficult line he walks in courting the establishment
without alienating his libertarian base.
"He put himself in the wrong camp in North Carolina, and that was a
big mistake. When you are running for president, you don't ever want
to be with the losers, even if you are making an ideological pick,"
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
While keeping one foot in the Tea Party camp, Paul also has backed
fellow Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, a mainstay of the party
establishment as the leader of Senate Republicans, in his May 20
primary against a Tea Party opponent.
That follows months of wooing the party's establishment donors while
touting his ability to appeal to young people and minorities. At
last weekend's Kentucky Derby, Paul courted media magnate Rupert
Murdoch, whose News Corp. controls the two most powerful mainstream
media voices in Republican politics - Fox News and the Wall Street
Journal's editorial pages.
He also has been on a busy national speaking tour that took him
before audiences Republicans typically avoid in places like the
liberal bastion of Berkeley, California, and historically black
Howard University in Washington.
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A RISING PROFILE
That groundwork for 2016 has paid off with a rising profile and a
jump into the top tier of potential Republican White House
candidates in recent opinion polls.
At the same time, Paul has drawn flak from some social conservatives
unhappy with his hands-off views on abortion and gay marriage and
from foreign policy hawks concerned about his opposition to a more
active U.S. global presence.
Steve Deace, a conservative talk radio host in Iowa, said Paul has
been "trying to thread the needle to appeal to all sides."
Deace said social conservatives, a powerful bloc in Iowa's
Republican nominating contest that kicks off the race, would not
back a candidate who said, as Paul did recently, that he would not
push to change abortion laws until public opinion shifts.
"Whatever support he has in the Iowa caucuses right now is the most
he is ever going to have," Deace said. "I think he wants to be
president too bad."
But Trey Greyson, who lost to Paul in Kentucky's 2010 Senate
Republican primary and is now director of Harvard University's
Institute of Politics, said Paul's opposition to foreign
intervention and to the National Security Agency's vast surveillance
was becoming a more mainstream Republican stance.
"His views have become more popular inside the party in recent
years. On the NSA stuff, Rand is right where the party is," Greyson
said, adding some of the recent criticism is a function of his more
prominent role in the party.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)
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