Concord, N.H. — It’s six o’clock on a humid evening, and the rank and file of the New Hampshire GOP — along with donors and activists from as far as Vermont and Rhode Island, and even a constitutional-law professor from New Jersey — are strolling into the Grappone Conference Center, between the pristine verdure of nearby Horseshoe Pond and the appropriately named Constitution Avenue, to hear speeches from RNC chairman Reince Priebus and, especially, Kentucky senator Rand Paul.
There are a goodly number of Romney bumper stickers on the cars in the lot, but at least one, a sporty little gray number with Massachusetts (!) plates, bears a “Rand Paul for President 2016” sticker below a chrome car badge reading “rEVOLution,” the standard of Rand’s father’s followers.
Inside, the ballroom is abuzz with the argot of the local party, a mix of political conversations catholic and provincial, along with all the usual “how’s your mother?” stuff.
But the ranks of the state committeemen and precinct volunteers are swelled by the mostly younger, occasionally weirder element that follows the Paul family name wherever it goes. The event is sold out — 500-plus tickets at anywhere from $75 to $1,000 a head. Over by the bar, one silver-haired nob in elbow patches taps another. “Have you ever seen so many strangers in your life?”
“Nope,” replies the other.
“It’s a good sign.”
Besides raising a bunch of money for a state party that sees an opening in 2014, the strangers are kind of the point of this first annual NHGOP Liberty Dinner. The idea was to bring all the colors of the right-leaning rainbow into the same room, to start operationalizing Priebus’s vocal commitment to Republican-tent enlargement.
“I know all these people, because I go back a-ways in this state,” Ryan Williams, a longtime Romney comms man and RNC consultant who helped put together the event, tells me. “But it’s a group of Republican activists you don’t usually see in the same place at the same time.”
In many ways, New Hampshire is the perfect place for this effort, and Rand Paul, who spoke in Iowa just ten days prior in another early indication of his presidential ambitions, is the perfect guy to lead it. The state’s registered voters split almost equally Republican (30 percent) and Democratic (29 percent), with 41 percent “undeclared.” Many of these are libertarians at heart if not on paper — this is, after all, the state that prints “Live Free or Die” on its license plate — and precisely the sort of voters the Republican party will need to bring inside the tent if it is to win in 2014 and 2016.
They’ll also need to pull a bigger share of the youth vote, and Rand’s following, less counterintuitively than his father’s, is young. That’s one reason the state party reached out to the New Hampshire Federation of College Republicans and reserved them plenty of seats.
I bumped into federation chair Jake Wagner (a junior at St. Anselm’s) and a gaggle of his members. While a few CR diehards inevitably make the trek to any party event, Wagner says, tonight’s turnout is way up.
That doesn’t mean they are completely sold on Rand. They like him, but they want to see more. Wagner was a Huntsman man “from start to finish” in 2012 (“Everybody makes mistakes” shrugs a lanky compatriot, with a smile), while Brian Dobson, a senior at the University of New Hampshire, prefers Paul the obstetrician to Paul the ophthalmologist, and voted for him in the 2012 primaries.
“But I think Rand is a little more realistic, a little more mainstream, a little more electable,” Dobson explains. Appropriately enough, we’re standing in front of a table that has already sold over 30 T-shirts emblazoned with “The Palatable Paul,” an odd sort of left-handed compliment for a guest of honor.
But it seems to be a theme. I spoke with Bill Smith, a gregarious older chap who has been a state committeeman on and off for 16 years. He called Ron Paul “80 percent perfect, 20 percent dangerous,” rattling off the standard conservative complaints that Ron was weak on national defense, not a friend of Israel, and too enthusiastic about drug legalization.
Indeed, Paul’s neatest trick has been his ability to be two different senators — one a GOP team player who sang the praises of Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney, the other an orthodox libertarian who is very much his father’s son — without alienating either base, or coming off as duplicitous.
He can vote for Chuck Hagel because he led the charge on Benghazi. He can question intervention in the Mideast because he traveled to Israel in January. And he splits the difference on the drug war by calling for reduced penalties instead of outright legalization.
But it remains to be seen whether the broader Republican party can walk that tightrope, too, when trying to draw, say, the civil libertarians who joined thumb-in-Obama’s-eye conservatives in their enthusiasm for Paul’s drone filibuster. In Concord, that tension wasn’t exactly overt, but it was definitely there. Priebus, for instance, zinged Attorney General Eric Holder for Mirandizing terror suspects and for his eagerness to try 9/11 plotters in civilian court. Not 15 minutes later, Paul essentially defended Holder’s position, using Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev as an example.
“What separates us from them is that when we did finally capture him, we sent the suspect to a hospital. He’s going to be tried in a court of law. He’s going to have an attorney,’” Paul said. “If this had been their country, he would have been dragged through the streets — if he were an American — and beaten to death with a tire iron. We are different than they are.”
Paul prefaced a number of points with “you might not agree with me, but . . . ,” which is not something you hear at the typical state-party fête for a Republican senator. And it’s not clear what the crowd made of either Priebus’s or Paul’s calls for demographic expansion. Priebus made the RNC’s new pitch about the need to reach out overtly to Hispanics and African Americans, a plan about which many on the right have voiced skepticism, either because they don’t want to play into the identity politics of the Left, they don’t think it will work, or both. Paul similarly warned against the GOP’s being “the party of white people,” but he also called for outreach to people “with tattoos,” “ponytails,” and “beards.”
There were a few well-kempt New England beards to be seen among the suits in Concord, but few longhairs, and no (visible) ink. Then again, the 2016 New Hampshire primary is three years away. Rand’s got time.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.