While there is no particular reason to believe either money or polling right now will dictate what happens when people start voting next year, it is widely believed by many that Rand Paul's presidential campaign is stagnant or floundering, and that tomorrow night's debate is a real opportunity for him to do something explosive or amazing to revive it.
The people behind three prominent Rand Paul-supporting SuperPACs don't agree.
Jesse Benton is with the PAC America's Liberty. Benton was also a majordomo in Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign (and was indicted this morning for alleged campaign law violations and lying to the FBI related to supposed payoffs to Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson during that campaign). Benton rejects the notion that the debates are make-or-break for Paul's campaign.
Paul and Paul's outside supporters have, Benton said in a phone interview on Monday, built a plan that's been years in the works, "and we don't need anything exceptional out of the debates. If people are saying Rand needs to wow or swing out of his shoes" in the debate, "I disagree, and it's not part of the plan."
As long as Paul can be "crisp and prepared and acquit himself well" among the other nine on stage tomorrow night, "that's all we need—a solid performance out of Rand."
Benton believes it's to Paul's benefit in the crowded debate stage that he "is able to differentiate from other candidates just by being himself, being Rand Paul, solid, articulate, and talking about ideas. But he doesn't have to have some over-the-top tremendous" moment "with memorable takeaways and punchlines." Paul's plan, Benton says, is a "long haul approach, not worried about the day in and day out of the horse race."
Benton's America's Liberty PAC is focused, he says, on an "integrated multimedia messaging and advertising program", with "digital, TV, and direct mail." It's planning to hold back most of its spending for closer to actual voting, when it is more likely to do real good, "targeted with real time data flow from the field."
Matt Kibbe, formerly of the grassroots free market advocacy group FreedomWorks, is now working for a Rand Paul SuperPAC called Concerned American Voters, focusing almost entirely on door-to-door and get out the vote efforts in the important early state of Iowa. "We are focused strictly on grassroots organization and get out the vote; we've already made half a million face-to-face contacts and phone calls in Iowa, and we think the key to an insurgent like Paul will be who shows up to vote on caucus day in Iowa." While they have chosen to make Iowa their main battleground, Kibbe says they may expand into Nevada as well.
Paul is likely to be a target of his opponents on debate night, Kibbe believes. Paul "needs to anticipate an inevitable attack from one of the establishment people, like maybe Christie, demagoguing on the NSA and surveillance." Paul should use the debate "as a platform to distinguish himself on civil liberties, as a different kind of candidate."
Kibbe notes Paul rejected the idea he should metaphorically set his hair on fire for attention, but "he can distinguish himself as a guy with policy reform cred, the one guy with a serious tax reform plan, someone who actually has substantive ideas on how to reform government."
Paul needn't explode out of the gate, Kibbe agrees; "he needs to not look for some silver bullet dramatic gesture, because he has substance to demonstrate." An "adult" campaign need not descend to "Trump levels" for attention.
A third Paul-backing SuperPAC is Purple PAC, run by Edward Crane, a former Libertarian Party higher-up in its 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, and founder and from 1977 to 2013 boss of the Cato Institute, a leading libertarian policy think tank.
In a letter to potential donors, Crane wrote "this is an asymmetric campaign. $120 million in Jeb Bush's coffers will not have the impact of $1 million of social media in Rand's accounts…most of our efforts will be social media – Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook and such."
Crane, as befits a man with his libertarian movement background, thinks libertarianism is the key to Paul's success. While granting Paul is not a perfect libertarian, Crane sees this campaign as "the best thing a libertarian has had in terms of a serious [presidential] campaign since ever." The key, says Crane, is that "he's a candidate who believes in the free enterprise system and is opposed to us being the world's policeman. That to me is enough reason" why libertarians should support him.
Crane thinks that outside-the-campaign messaging efforts are vital since Paul's actual campaign "is being run by conservatives; they instinctively don't agree with his libertarianism so they downplay it." Crane sees Paul's current failure to climb in polls as "completely consistent with an unwillingness to discuss issues from a libertarian perspective."
"I'd love to grab Paul by the lapels" and tell him this, Crane says, but given the nature of campaign finance laws and the rules about unaffiliated SuperPACS, "I could go to jail for doing that, which is just absurd."
He had lunch with Paul years ago, before the official campaign or SuperPAC, Crane recalls, in which Paul expressed some frustration knowing that potential opponents would be ganging up on him on his foreign policy. Crane believes Paul can shine with his distinct foreign policy, since "50 percent of Republicans watching this debate agree with" Paul on not getting us quickly into more war in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Crane gives some credence to complaints that Paul as a retail campaigner is insufficiently positive, enthusiastic, and solicitous toward supporters or would-be supporters. Still, in this current Trump moment where the choices are either "a lunatic or business-as-usual Republicanism or a new approach" like Paul's, Paul still has great potential to shine.
"All the outreach to blacks is genuine and serious, he's the only guy saying the NSA shouldn't be spying on everyone, there are lots of things very attractive" about him, particularly to the independents who any GOP candidate will need to win over to have a chance at victory in November 2016.
"We call it the Purple PAC," Crane says, because states neither overwhelmingly red or blue "are the answer" to victory for Republicans. "You have to win a good number of those 10 or 12 states to win, and to win them you need to win independents, and Paul leads among independents. This is something the campaign is overlooking, not using as a campaign strategy, and they should."
For the debates, Crane thinks Paul can distinguish himself by stressing points such as that ISIS wouldn't exist if not for our prior meddling in the Middle East; and making it clear that he understands and supports free markets and civil liberties more consistently and intelligently than the others.
Crane says libertarians should understand, even if put off by things like Paul emphasizing the war on Planned Parenthood or sanctuary cities, that overall "he's very smart—if you saw the drone filibuster, it was like a college course in the Constitution—and he shares our worldview for the most part."
"We got a viable candidate against war and for free markets, and that's all that needs be said." Some of those social conservative nods are "unfortunate," Crane says, "not the way I would have done it, but he's the one putting it out on the line and I admire him for that. I just think he's got too many conservatives involved" in his campaign.