Can Rand Sell '60s In 2016?

04/07/2015 02:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

LOUISVILLE, K.Y. -- Jimi Hendrix’s trippy/soul version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" was on the sound system in the Galt House ballroom just before Rand Paul’s campaign kickoff.

The sign behind Rand on the stage as he spoke was too long for a bumper sticker, but it also echoed the 1960s: "DEFEAT THE WASHINGTON MACHINE/UNLEASH THE AMERICAN DREAM." Of course: We are all leashed dogs, enslaved by a relentless, soulless, distant (and warmongering) government. Somewhere, Ho Chi Minh is smiling.

When Rand began to speak about the ills of America, he sounded like a guy with a bullhorn at an Occupy rally.

“Both political parties and the entire political system are to blame!” he shouted.

Personally and philosophically, Rand Paul is (and is selling himself as) a foe of the System. Even though he has trimmed some of his antagonistically libertarian and isolationist views, he is at heart a rage-against-the-machine guy. He likes to argue and fiercely thinks he is right. He likes to take on things that are bigger than he is.

His claim is a barrier-crossing, outside-the-system youthfulness: adept at social media, critical of the war on drugs, outraged at invasions of privacy by the government, skeptical of war as a means of achieving peace and eager to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities.

Kids of the “Facebook generation” don’t want to jail people for victimless crimes, bail out the big banks and allow intrusions into their lives, he told the cheering and largely youthful crowd. They believe that “what happens on your cell phone is none of anyone’s damned business.”

Nor do they want the “droning of American citizens” -- an issue that brought Paul to the U.S. Senate floor for a 13-hour standing filibuster that made him a national figure.

“Stand with Rand” was a hot phrase on Twitter, and is now a campaign slogan. But there are some serious risks in his Jimi Hendrix strategy.

One is whether he can temper and channel his anti-establishment vibe in a time more of sullenness than boiling anger, a time when people fear a rising generation of terrorists and the Republican Party is still more traditional than Rand claims to be.

He punches above his weight. Without his Texas cowboy boots, he can’t be more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, give or take an inch. He has always looked younger than his age, now 52. He grew up as “Randy,” shortening it to Rand on the understandable advice of his wife, Kelley Paul. “When I first met him at a party I thought that he was 18,” she said in a video shown at the event. “He was 26.”

He can be short-tempered, especially when confronted by those who insist on disagreeing with him. “Wait until he runs into some annoying woman in Iowa and she gets in his face,” said one conservative in the crowd, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t a Rand supporter. “He’ll have had three hours of sleep. Let’s see what happens then.”

But the biggest risk is that he can’t become -- let alone be seen -- as the same kind of trimming, deal-making politician he denounces.

There are some signs that he is at risk. Tuesday's event was slickly orchestrated -- as slickly as that of any Washington insider.

His hawkish remarks about Iran make him sound like just another Republican. And then there's his deal with GOP insiders in Kentucky to be on the ballot as both a Senate and presidential candidate in March of 2016. There will surely be other deals down the road.

Another obvious risk is that Paul is running what amounts to a general election strategy, with a broad message aimed at swing voters in the middle. But his first early direct sale will have to be in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where GOP voters are far more traditional, hawkish and religious.

But in the meantime, he got a rousing send-off here. The song they played when he was done was “Break on Through to the Other Side” by the Doors.

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