COLUMBIA, South Carolina — In recent days, Rand Paul has seized on a new bogeyman: Donald Trump.
The senator attacked on Thursday's debate stage. The next day, he criticized Trump at campaign stops throughout the day in South Carolina, even including some lines about The Donald in his stump speech.
The line of attack is this: Trump is a "consummate insider" who claims to be an outsider, who buys access with politicians, Republicans and Democrats (Hillary Clinton in particular) alike. Paul went after Trump right out of the gate on the debate stage on Thursday making a similar point, saying "he buys and sells politicians" and "He's already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn't run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent."
The question is, why now?
"One of the things that’s going on in the race that I think is puzzling is that Trump’s trying to run as an outsider and a truth teller, when in reality he’s the consummate insider who buys and sells politicians like he buys and sells any other commodiites," Paul said in an interview with BuzzFeed News in Rock Hill, South Carolina after he finished a campaign stop there in which he dismissed Trump as "what’s the guy’s name with the big hair, the businessman from New York?"
"I think [Trump's] quote in the Wall Street Journal is, 'I give them money so they’ll do whatever the hell I want them to do,'" Paul said. "And I think that crass sort of nature is something that I think most of the people who seem to be gravitating to him would be shocked if they understood."
Paul hasn't always been willing to go after Trump, though. During an interview with BuzzFeed News in Houston just weeks ago on July 17, Paul declined to say anything at all about Trump.
"I’m trying to stay mostly focused on my message," Paul told BuzzFeed News at the time. "I’m just focusing, I’m happy to ask a thousand and one policy positions. But it’s got to be about what I want for the country and my vision. If I thought that I was going to be somebody who was going to respond to the other 15 or 20 based on the daily news, then I don’t think that’d be somebody you’d really want to be president."
For a while, several of the candidates hesitated to criticize Trump, who commands real support among disaffected voters in the conservative base. But the climate has changed as Trump's list of outrageous comments has grown larger and larger and his lead in the polls has stayed solid, causing concern about the possibility he could wreak havoc in the race for some time to come. Important players in the conservative movement have now turned on him. The Fox News moderators were harsh with him in the first Republican primary debate on Thursday, forcing him to admit he won't rule out a third party run and questioning his very Republicanism. After Trump fought back last night against Megyn Kelly by suggesting she was on her period while moderating the debate, conservative pundit Erick Erickson disinvited him from this weekend's RedState Gathering in Atlanta, tweeting on Friday, "I have rescinded my invitation to Mr.Trump. While I have tried to give him great latitude, his remark about Megyn Kelly was a bridge too far."
So in other words, it's safer now than it was before to go after Trump.
Asked if he was worried about alienating Trump's supporters, Paul said, "I think that people are gravitating towards someone who’s unafraid to say what they believe, and the same goes for anybody else who's willing to stand up and say what they believe."
"And I’ll continue to do it because it’s the right thing to do, but it would be naïve for people to think, 'oh you shouldn’t point out things that are contradictions,' and so I think it is a contradiction to run as an outsider if you’re the consummate insider," Paul said.
There's an argument to be made that the candidate Trump may have hurt most is Paul, who has struggled to keep his foothold in the race in recent weeks, with disappointing polling and mediocre fundraising. The central thrust of Paul's appeal to voters is anti-Washington sentiment, a sense of being fed up with all the rules and regulations and clubby snobbery of D.C. (Paul's actual campaign slogan involves the phrase "Defeat the Washington machine"). The problem is, as News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch tweeted a few weeks ago, "Trump popularity based on frustration with D.C. and endless regulations over people's lives. Thought this was Rand Paul's issue."
That makes it doubly important for Paul to create distance by painting Trump as an insider. And it creates an opportunity for Paul to reclaim what people liked about him in the first place: that he's different, unafraid to buck his party on issues and openly disagree with fellow Republicans, something that has gotten lost in the shuffle as Paul has attempted rapprochement with the mainstream on several issues.
Paul's new line of attack on Trump played well with the small-to-medium-sized crowds who came to see him in South Carolina on Friday, his lines about Trump getting applause and laughter in Rock Hill and Columbia. At a "Pints for Liberty" event at a brewery in Columbia, Paul seemed at ease, telling the crowd of young libertarian-ish types clutching beers that he'd wanted to get the debate going with "fireworks."
"I guess the thing that boggles my mind is we got a frontrunner — you know, you’ve seen the guy with the big hair," he said. "So we‘ve got this guy and it’s like, what is he famous for? He’s famous for buying politicians. We all despise Hillary Clinton for selling access, for enriching herself with her public service. Why aren’t we upset by a businessman who buys access to a politician like Hillary Clinton?"