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May 24. 2013 1:36AM

Fergus Cullen: Is Rand Paul peaking too early? (That’s a joke, people)

There were lots of new faces at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s annual dinner Monday night, many of them under 30, most obviously attending their first-ever political dinner. How could you tell? The newbies were the first to take their seats, at their assigned tables, well before the program got going, and they stayed put!

Rubes. Say this for these youthful liberty lovers: They follow the rules, and not just the Constitution. No one told them the whole point of party dinners is to tablehop and hobnob. The only way to get the experienced pols to stop mingling at these things is to start the Pledge and the prayer, and that only makes them pause.

Establishment Republican donors and liberty activists — the Free Keene parking meter bandits were represented — came together to see keynoter U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in his first visit to New Hampshire as a potential presidential candidate.

His father, Ron Paul, finished fifth in the 2008 Republican primary with nine percent of the vote after running a grassroots-fed campaign few took seriously or treated respectfully. But in 2012, the elder Paul’s appeal expanded dramatically, he ran a much more professional effort, and he placed a strong second with 23 percent. Presumably that block of voters starts favorably predisposed toward Rand, which makes the younger Paul the closest thing there is to an early 2016 frontrunner.

“I want to get one thing straight before I get started here, before I get going, because I can go for a while,” Paul opened, referring to his March anti-drone filibuster which earned him national attention. “I believe that we have to have border control. I believe that there’s absolutely no reason we can’t have a fence because we got to keep those people from Massachusetts out of New Hampshire!”

The joke got a huge roar from the crowd — even though it was completely wrong on substance. Massachusetts transplants — many of them motivated tax refugees — are among New Hampshire’s most reliable Republican voters. Last fall Mitt Romney got around 60 percent of the vote in Pelham, Salem, Atkinson, Plaistow, Hampstead, and Windham, border towns convenient to I-93 where it is easy to work in Massachusetts while choosing to live in New Hampshire.

Never mind. When it comes to the Pauls’ appeal, facts are often beside the point. Part of the Paul paradox is that gap between the facts and the truth, the difference between what the Pauls actually say and what their fans hear them say. This is a tremendous political asset. The Pauls’ apostles project onto the Pauls whatever they want to see.

Sen. Paul is no clone of his father, though. The elder Paul didn’t really try to win the nomination or appeal to mainstream voters. One always got the sense that, like a dog chasing a car, he wouldn’t have known what to do with the bumper if he got it between his teeth. Ron Paul was content to have an audience, happy to wait patiently through 90 minute debates for his turns.

Rand Paul is more of a practical politician. On Monday he threw out plenty of crowd-pleasing red meat, bashing the IRS, Hillary Clinton, Obamacare, and foreign aid. There was no talk of the gold standard or conspiracies involving the Fed. He acknowledged a role for the U.S. military protecting overseas embassies, which his isolationist father might oppose. He went out of his way to express kind words about Mitt Romney, whom his father never endorsed.

Nor will Rand get the uncritical free pass from his competitors that his father did. Because Ron Paul’s vote share didn’t come disproportionately out of the hide of any one opponent, he wasn’t a threat and no one ever attacked him. Ron Paul could say outrageous things in debates — Iraq has as much right to nuclear weapons as the United States; New York City had it coming on 9/11 — and the other candidates would fix pursed smiles and usually say nothing.

The other candidates won’t cede a quarter of the primary vote without a fight next time, which means the liberty Republicans and establishment Republicans who so amicably shared the Concord ballroom this week won’t get along so well indefinitely.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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