Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul wooed Minnesota college students Monday with a small-government message aimed at the young voters that campaigns crave but often fail to inspire.
"The government, it's none of their damn business what you do with your credit card," Paul told a group of about 200 people gathered for a "Stand with Rand" event on the University of Minnesota campus.
In a speech just short of 30 minutes, the U.S. senator from Kentucky ticked off a list of concerns that seemed tailored to the college crowd: government surveillance and overreach into personal financial records and online activity. He warned the students they would likely be burdened their entire lives by federal government debt and deficits. He ripped universities that "build billion-dollar endowments while students struggle," and vowed to reduce the U.S. military presence abroad.
He highlighted racial disparities in the prosecution of minor drug crimes, which he said carry overly harsh sentences.
"I want government that's so small I can barely see it," Paul said.
National and state polls have shown Paul unable to break out of the crowded field of Republican contenders. But to date, his campaign has been among the most aggressive in organizing for Minnesota's March 1 presidential caucus, which follows quickly on the heels of the four February contests that will open the 2016 presidential race: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Paul was the first Republican candidate to put a Minnesota organizer on its payroll. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, recently hired a Minnesota operative. The campaign of Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton now has two paid employees working in the Twin Cities, and plans to add a handful more around the state in the coming month, as she faces a spirited challenge by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Like Iowa, Minnesota holds caucuses rather than a primary election. That tends to favor those candidates who build a substantial grass roots base of support.
"One strength we have, when you look around the country, is that we have more committed voters," Paul told reporters before his speech.
Paul's father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, ran for president in 2008 and 2012 on a similar platform of a drastic decrease in federal spending and oversight, and a vastly reduced U.S. military presence abroad. He amassed a quirky but dedicated coalition of Minnesota followers, from traditional small-government conservatives and Tea Party activists to civil libertarians and antiwar activists.
Rand Paul is now trying to reassemble that group behind his own candidacy.
After two more rallies later Monday, in Duluth and Rochester, and an evening fundraiser at a private home in Orono, Paul was headed to Wisconsin on Tuesday for the next GOP presidential debate. He made only passing mention of his rivals, except to say he believed neither businessman Donald Trump nor retired surgeon Ben Carson would ultimately be the nominee.
He also swiped at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: "On foreign policy, there's no difference between Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton," he said, arguing both would deepen U.S. military entanglements in the Middle East.
Paul is the first GOP candidate to campaign in Minnesota in several months. The last was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has dropped out of the race.
Beyond the March 1 caucus, it's difficult to say whether Minnesota will be pivotal in the general election. No Republican candidate has won Minnesota since 1972, but a poll of state voters released Sunday by KSTP and SurveyUSA found Clinton trailing Carson, Rubio, Fiorina and Trump. The poll found Clinton essentially in a tie with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The poll did not match her up against Paul.
Karen Finney, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign who was in Minneapolis on Monday, said that more voters would gravitate to Clinton the more they tune in to the race. The Clinton campaign will be ramping up its outreach in the coming weeks to potential caucus voters through door-knocking, phone calls, advertising, and likely visits by Clinton herself as well as high-profile surrogates, Finney said.
Similarly, the Paul campaign gathered more than a hundred signatures on Monday from students at the Coffman Union event. For the Republican, the hope — and the gamble — is that younger voters actually show up for a caucus on the night of March 1, and participate in a process with obscure rules that often draws only the most dedicated party regulars.
David Poyerd, an undergraduate pre-pharmacy major from Forest Lake who has been following the Republican race, and who supports Paul, said he shares information about Paul on his Facebook page. But he wouldn't commit to actually attending a party caucus.
"I work 30 hours a week and I'm a full-time student," Poyerd said. "I'm pretty busy."