CHICAGO (AP) — A confident Rand Paul claimed new momentum Friday in his fight against government surveillance programs, just days ahead of his second Capitol Hill showdown in as many weeks.
The Republican senator infuriated leaders in his own party last week by almost single-handedly delaying the extension of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act. In a Friday interview between campaign stops in South Carolina, Paul said voters are encouraging him to continue fighting the National Security Agency’s bulk collection programs when the Senate convenes Sunday.
“I find a great deal of interest among Republicans who tell me the NSA ought to stop collecting our phone records, that’s it’s wrong,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
The 52-year-old libertarian favorite is working to transform his efforts on Capitol Hill into political capital as he ramps up his nascent Republican presidential bid.
He lashed out at the leaders of his own party this week in campaign stops across Illinois, Iowa and South Carolina while intensifying fundraising outreach to help cash in on the attention. In the midst of last week’s Senate marathon session, Paul invited supporters to buy $30 “Filibuster Starter Packs” with a bumper sticker, T-shirt and a “spy blocker” for Internet browsers.
He’s also seized the opportunity to put new distance between himself and the rest of his party’s presidential hopefuls.
Voters are noticing.
“I think some of his ideas are a breath of fresh air,” said Corey Brooks, an African-American pastor on the South Side of Chicago, where Paul campaigned earlier in the week. “His views are diametrically opposite of what Republicans tend to say and do, and I think it’s a good thing.”
Yet it’s unclear how far his civil liberties focus resonates beyond the libertarian-leaning voters who supported his father’s presidential ambitions.
He stood on the Senate floor for nearly 11 hours last week, bucking leaders in his own party, to protest the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program that monitors Americans’ phone records.
His delaying tactic forced Senate leaders to adjourn for the week with no resolution on the Patriot Act, parts of which are set to expire Sunday night.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has summoned the Senate to return for a rare Sunday session just hours before the midnight deadline. Expiration would mean suspension of a program that collects data on every American landline call, as well as of two FBI programs to track terrorist suspects.
President Barack Obama on Friday blamed a “handful of senators” for stalling the legislation, although he didn’t name anyone specifically. Obama said he has told McConnell and other senators that he expects them to take action swiftly.
Paul’s allies hyped the Sunday session in a digital ad released Friday that likens the debate to a professional wrestling match.
“Watch them battle it out under the dome on the floor of the United States Senate in the brawl for liberty this Sunday,” the narrator says in a professional wrestling-style ad produced by a super PAC run by Paul’s former campaign manager.
The ad super imposes Paul’s head on the body of a wrestler, while describing one Republican presidential prospect, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as “the capitulating Canadian” and depicting another, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, in a purple convertible.
In his travels this week, Paul accused members of his party for abandoning their small-government credo in the national security debate. He’s also blamed Republican national security hawks for the rise of the Islamic State group.
In a radio interview that aired Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said people like Paul who oppose the Patriot Act “have a severe case of amnesia” regarding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Another potential rival for the GOP nomination, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said Paul was “unsuited to be commander in chief.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus doesn’t necessarily agree.
“I think Rand Paul is a fighter, he always has been,” Priebus told The Associated Press. “I don’t think he’s hurting anybody. He is an elected senator that is leading on a number of issues in this country. … Most people admire the fact that he’s trying to lead.”
Yet on government surveillance at least, it’s unclear how closely voters are following Paul’s efforts.
In a March 2014 Pew Research Center poll, just 19 percent of Americans said they were following “reports about the U.S. government’s phone and Internet surveillance programs” very closely, while more than half were not following closely.
“Sen. Rand Paul will follow the Constitution over any poll,” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said, suggesting that public opinion is shifting.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report. Peoples reported from Washington.
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