Rand Paul gets receptive ear to his message in Sarasota

Conventional wisdom has it that Florida is Jeb Bush country in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio enjoys lots of conservative Sunshine State love as well.

But that didn’t stop Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul from courting Republicans in Bush/Rubio home turf this weekend. At a Valentine’s evening airport rally Saturday night he found plenty of Republicans receptive to his message.

“I like Jeb Bush. I’ve voted for him,” said Republican business broker Dale Tindall. “But whether it’s the Bushes or the Kennedys, or the Clintons, enough is enough.”

That sentiment was repeated over and over again in random interviews among the several hundred people gathered Saturday to see Paul, who told the Tampa Bay Times he is not intimidated by his rivals’ Florida advantage or by Bush’s expected overwhelming fundraising advantage.

“Most of the grass-roots of our party believes that we should have less centralization of education in Washington. Most of the people I meet are opposed to Common Core, as I am,” Paul, 52, said of the education standards championed by Bush and adopted by Florida and most other states. “I just think it’s going to be difficult (for Bush) to win over grass-roots conservatives.”

Paul suggested that he would like to see both Rubio and Bush jump into the presidential race.

“That would actually make it more like the vote would split enough ways for the state to be competitive,” Paul said.

The Kentucky senator on Friday addressed the Orange County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner, while Jeb Bush was in southwest Florida at the Barbara Bush Foundation’s annual event promoting literacy.

Asked at a news conference about his brother’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush demurred.

“If I’m in the process of considering the possibility of running, it’s not about re-litigating anything in the past,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying. “I won’t talk about the past. I’ll talk about the future.”

Paul similarly does not want to answer for everything his father, former presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has said or done, agreed Bush need not answer for his brother.

But, Paul said, “of course” Bush needs to explain his views on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“Yeah, people should ask him about the war,” Paul told the Times. “I get asked about it all the time. I think the Iraq war was a mistake for many different reasons. One, it led to less stability. There’s still chaos in Iraq. It’s a country that really is now separate regions, it’s not really a unified country and the (situation) has allowed Iran to become much stronger and more of a threat without the counterbalance of Iraq as a strong nation.”

Several hundred people turned out to the free airport rally, where the eye doctor presented his wife Kelly Ashby with a long stemmed rose for Valentine’s Day. He never mentioned his Republican rivals by name, but several times attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is widely presumed to be the eventual Democratic nominee.

“Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya didn’t go so well. Hillary thought it would be a great idea to go to Libya and topple the government there. You know what we have there now. We have a Jihadist wonder land. ... It’s a disaster and a disgrace,” he said, going on to blame her for failing to ramp up security at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.

Paul is an unconventional Republican candidate, with a libertarian streak that produces applause lines rarely heard at Republican rallies.

▪ Privacy — ”There is absolutely no reason for the government to ever look at your phone records without a warrant.”

▪ Civil forfeiture — “The government can take your stuff without ever charging you or convicting you. ... You are guilty until you prove yourself innocent.”

He said Republicans need to take their message to more Americans, which is why he speaks to African-American groups and college students frequently.

“The same message I took to the Conservative Political Action Committee I gave to Berkeley — and I got a standing ovation at both,” he said. “It’s the defense of liberty.”

Paul supports the Obama administration’s decision to open relations and ease travel restrictions to Cuba — a big difference from Bush and Rubio — and he told the Times he is not worried about how that will play among the hard line Cuban exiles in south Florida. Polls show most Cuban-Americans born in the United States feel the same way he does, Paul noted.

“Some of the people who seem to very emotional about this issue, it might be good for them to go visit Cuba actually.”

Asked about one of the biggest controversies in Gov. Bush’s tenure — his efforts to overturn court cases that approved the removal of feeding tubes for Terri Schiavo, Paul declined to take a position.

“I haven’t read or looked at all details of that particular case,” he said.