Rand Paul’s long-anticipated presidential rollout hasn’t gone quite as smoothly as he might have hoped.
In just his first week as an official candidate, he’s faced the dual headwinds of negative ads highlighting conservative criticism over his foreign policy views as well as charges of sexism for his combative reactions in high-profile interviews.
The early days of a presidential campaign are critically important: It’s a first shot for candidates to define themselves at a time when they’ll attract a swell of generally positive media coverage and get screen time in front of audiences that don’t normally pay attention to politics.
And this early on — Paul was only the second candidate to jump in the race after Ted Cruz — newcomers face an onslaught of political media coverage. That means closer than usual scrutiny of a candidate’s record and statements, along with incessant horse race evaluations of based on optics and the logistics of campaign rollouts.
“No matter how well-known a candidate may be going into a roll out tour, the goal of any presidential announcement event is to provide the optics and visuals that say, ‘Meet the next president of the United States,’” said John Legittino, who led Mitt Romney’s national event production.
For Paul, it’s widely viewed that his Tuesday announcement in Louisville, Kentucky, successfully set the tone for his campaign. He aimed to appear like a nontraditional candidate with diverse appeal that would help expand the Republican base and make him more electable in a general election. The kickoff event was followed by a media blitz and an early voting state tour that took him through New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. On Saturday, he completes the tour in Nevada.
It was during his media appearances that the narrative of his rollout started shifting gears. On Wednesday morning, Paul clashed with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie over what he considered editorialized questions and tried to direct her on how she should conduct an interview. The tense exchange quickly spread and comparisons were drawn to his heated reaction in a different interview two months ago when he shushed a female reporter.
And when Paul was in New Hampshire later on Wednesday, he got aggravated with an Associated Press reporter who asked the senator specifics about his views on abortion ban exceptions.
“I gave you about a five-minute answer. Put in my five-minute answer,” a frustrated Paul said.
He also got into a mudslinging match with the Democratic National Committee when he told a reporter at NH1, who also asked a question about abortion, to challenge the Democratic group’s chairwoman.
“Why don’t we ask the DNC, ‘Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus?’ You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s okay with killing a seven-pound baby that is just not yet born yet,” he said.
While Paul is known for being accessible to the media and granting a lot of interviews, he later admitted that he can be “short-tempered” with the press.
“I think I should have more patience,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday, though he argued that he’s not just irritable with female interviewers, a narrative that Democrats had been pushing all day.
“I think it’s pretty equal opportunity. I was annoyed with a male reporter this morning. I will have to get better at holding my tongue and holding my temper,” he said.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, said candidates need to understand the level of attention and close examination that presidential candidates can be exhaustive.
“Even when you breathe, it’s news,” he said. “There’s always going to be mistakes, the question is how do you handle those mistakes and move forward.”
Taking on the media can sometimes be strategic for candidates, O’Connell said, but candidates need to pick their battles wisely.
“What they want to see you do is be diplomatic about it and then be able to triangulate and return fire when it’s something really, really big,” he said.
Whether those contentious moments will have an effect on his campaign is unclear.
A woman who attended Paul’s rally in Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday told Paul she saw his appearance on Fox News the previous night with host Megyn Kelly, who grilled Paul over the way he handled himself in the NBC interview.
“Don’t worry about your interview with Megyn,” the woman in South Carolina said. “You don’t offend women. Just keep at it.”
Also taking a toll on Paul’s announcement week was a million dollar ad push by the right-leaning group Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, criticizing his foreign policy views. The round of ads and web videos, which kicked off the same day as Paul’s presidential announcement, painted Paul as soft on Iran, using comments he made in 2007.
The attack was bolstered when conservative columnist Charles Krauthhammer said Paul was the “one Republican who’d be running who is the closest to Obama in his view of foreign policy,” a major blow to any Republican seeking the nomination.
It’s long been clear that one of Paul’s biggest challenges in winning the GOP primary would be his anti-interventionist views, especially as the public has grown more favorable toward military action in the Middle East to defeat ISIS.
His position against foreign aid also received renewed attention this week. Paul has been an outspoken proponent of ending all U.S. foreign assistance, including to Israel.
Doug Wead, a friend of Paul’s who also worked for Paul’s father, Ron Paul, said the senator’s week had been “tumultuous,” but argued the attack ad was simply a sign Paul is a top-tier candidate whose unconventional GOP views on foreign policy could cross party lines and play well in the general election.
He pointed to a new Quinnipiac Poll that showed Paul was ahead of Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical matchup in three swing states.
But Wead said the senator, who was first elected to public office in 2010, could benefit by learning how to embrace a “so what” attitude when it comes to negative attention.
“I think he has to recognize that he does not control the medium through which people learn his ideas and views,” he said.