It's official: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has qualified by his rising poll numbers to appear in this Thursday's Fox-sponsored Republican presidential candidate debate, the last before the first votes of election 2016 are cast in Iowa on Feb. 1.
While Paul is in, frontrunner Donald Trump is saying today that, because he feels Fox isn't treating him fairly, he will be out.
Paul hosted a telephone press conference this afternoon in which he talked about the debate and other things. Some highlights:
• Naturally, he still thinks he can do very well in Iowa. When the news he'd made the Fox debate was official, Paul says, in his Des Moines campaign office "100 young men and women making phone calls were jumping up and down and screaming, excited." He brags his operation has made around 750,000 calls for him so far, and he's got over 1,000 precinct chairman (who help gin up local get out the vote and speak for his candidacy at Iowa's strangely intimate caucus meetings where votes occur).
He is also bouyed by the idea that some polls show up to 39 percent still undecided, leaving everything way more up in the air, he believes, than straight poll reporting would indicate. Current dominant polls, he argues, are based on belief in a turnout nearly three times higher than typical, leading him to question their accuracy.
Paul also pointed out in answer to a question from me about how he expects to do with evangelicals—widely credited with causing the huge and unexpected Rick Santorum surge in 2012 that took him from zero to hero over the course of just about a week—that "one interesting thing, when most polling asks who you voted for in 2012, the last Des Moines Register poll did recently, had five percent estimated Ron Paul vote."
Since Ron Paul actually got nearly 22 percent in 2012, it could be that the "Paul vote" is being grossly underpolled. While Rand Paul treated the evangelical question as seemingly less important, he did say he thinks that because "I'm a big defender of religious liberty, conservative personally, I think we have a great chance of getting our share of the evangelical" vote.
Regarding getting back into the main debate, Paul says he always knew he was a top-tier candidate, and that his winning his way back shows the wisdom of his refusal to let himself be framed as an also-ran in the undercard debate last time. In the end, the bulk of his hopes for Iowa do rely on the young: "We are on the upswing with most polls in Iowa and that's a good place to be; we're rising at just the right time and we see if we motivate the youth vote, not counted in polling, we could be in for a surprise in Iowa."
• Paul believes he has a great chance to distinguish himself on the debate stage Thursday as the only true conservative. "The most important thing is I'm the only fiscal conservative on stage" because you "can't be conservative if you are liberal with military spending" and that he's the only one for holding the line on both military and domestic spending.
He pokes at fellow candidates and senators Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) for supporting $200 billion in military spending hikes with no offsets. Paul posits there could be as much as $100 billion in pure waste in current military spending, and "very few voices are talking about that." He believes that positioning himself as the only fiscal conservative on stage can work for him.
• Paul thinks fellow senator Ted Cruz is a crummy liberty candidate, and is confident that that wing of the Party still belongs to him. Cruz, Paul says, will ultimately face the "authenticity" dilemma with the liberty Republican wing. "They are big supporters of Audit the Fed" and Cruz failed to show up for that vote. Cruz's response to Rubio in an earlier debate about wanting the National Security Agency to collect "100 percent of our cell phone data—most in the liberty movement are not interested in government collecting any cell phone data much less 100 percent." Paul thinks Cruz has equivocated too much on ethanol, being anti-mandate but willing to let it continue for a while longer. Paul thinks that current polling regarding the gap between him and Cruz (and Trump) might be "way off, not 5 percent off, but 10-15 percent.
• Paul is not worried about his just-announced Senate race challenge from Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and doesn't think that suddenly having competition for that re-election race means he has to give less attention to the presidential. He's satisfied he's held up his end as a senator for the people of Kentucky even while running for president, noting that he's in D.C. even as he spoke to us and "will be here to vote tomorrow" before leaving on a late flight tomorrow.
"People of Kentucky elected me because I'm conservative, I work hard on balancing the budget, I turned back $2 million from my own office budget to help the Treasury and give back to the taxpayer." Paul believes that it's good for Kentucky and its interests to have their senator be a live and active voice in the national presidential campaign.
• He's concerned, vis a vis D.C. and its carry laws, that if a Charlie Hebdo type terror event happens in D.C., that the citizenry won't necessarily be prepared for effective armed self defense, noting that even police often call for citizens to, if they see ongoing public gun chaos, to try to "take down" the bad guys. "Until we can make violence go away," something he hopes for but knows is unlikely, "we need to figure how to defend ourselves."