For the first time since the Conservative Political Action Conference convened on Thursday morning, the excitement in the conference’s sprawling ballroom was palpable. The reason: freshman senator Rand Paul.
In the midst of a conference that, by comparison to those of years past has lacked electricity, the mere presence of the Kentucky senator brought the crowd to its feet. The audience rose as he took the stage and lined the sides of the packed hall.
Paul’s ability to elicit a reaction like this is one reason he is one of the GOP’s most formidable presidential contenders.
In National Harbor on Friday, it was his assault on the National Security Agency’s surveillance program that earned the loudest cheers from a crowd that skews libertarian.
“I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damned business,” Paul said, arguing that the matter is “a profound constitutional question.” Last month, Paul filed a class-action lawsuit against the administration over the NSA’s data-collection program.
President Obama also earned reproach. “How will history remember Barack Obama?” Paul asked. Invoking Pink Floyd star Roger Waters, Paul predicted that many Obama fans will find themselves wondering whether, in backing the president, they traded their heroes for ghosts. “A great president,” he said, “would have protected us from the prying eyes of the NSA.”
CPAC is swamped with libertarian Paul supporters. Last year, the Kentucky senator won the straw poll here after rallying a standing-room-only crowd, and he likely to claim the top spot in Saturday’s poll.
As he taped an interview with Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren earlier today, fans and supporters crowded around him holding signs bearing the slogan, “Stand with Rand.” He has an advantage over his competitors in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Former campaign staffers for his father now control the Iowa Republican Party and some of the infrastructure from Ron Paul’s failed presidential bids also remains in libertarian-leaning New Hampshire, where in 2012 the elder Paul finished second behind Mitt Romney.
On stage Friday, Paul cast the current political battles as part of a larger struggle between liberty and tyranny.
“There is a great and tumultuous battle underway for the future, not of the Republican party but for the future of the entire country,” he announced. “The question is, will we be bold and proclaim our message with passion, or will we be sunshine patriots?”
“Stand with me, let us stand together for liberty,” Paul said, rock music blaring as he exited the stage.