'It's Better Than Being Last': Rand Paul on His Political Ascent

The Kentucky senator also says Russia should be "isolated" for its incursion into Crimea, but avoids specific policy proposals.

SAN FRANCISCO—Rand Paul is riding high. He pocketed a straw-poll win at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. He won another straw poll in New Hampshire. And, perhaps most significant, he tops the 2016 Republican field in an early CNN/ORC International poll.

"I don't know whether it's good luck or it's bad luck," the Kentucky Republican said. "It makes you more of a target, I guess."

"I tell people it's better than being last," he joked in an interview in the lobby of the Olympic Club in downtown San Francisco. As he leaned back in his chair, his suit pants revealed more of his brown, cowboy-style leather boots. "It's better than not being noticed."

There is little chance of that. His growing political perch brings added attention and scrutiny to his every utterance.

Paul will use that presidential-sized platform on Wednesday to speak out at UC Berkeley against the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance practices. While in the Bay Area, he has a series of closed-door meetings, including with prospective donors.

The NSA is one of the issues Paul hopes to use to woo younger voters to the Republican fold in 2016—one of his top political priorities. Paul said his goal is to send a message to students "that there are people in the Republican Party who do want to defend your privacy."

"I think they, like me, don't understand why the government would have access to their [phone] records," Paul said.

Topping a national-presidential poll is rarefied air for any politician, particularly a first-term senator. It's a position of prominence that Paul's father, former Representative Ron Paul, never achieved in his multiple presidential bids. Not that the younger Paul is rubbing it in. "I haven't talked to him yet," he said. "I've been travelling."

Establishment Republicans often dismissed the elder Paul as too far out of line with the GOP mainstream on foreign policy (among other issues) to ever be the party's nominee. It's a criticism that the younger Paul appears eager to tackle.

Paul took a veiled swipe at Senator Ted Cruz—the other conservative seen atop the potential GOP 2016 field—in a sharply worded op-ed that accused rivals of wrongly wrapping their views in with Reagan's legacy, and he suggested his non-interventionist policies are in the historical mainstream.

Paul attributed criticism of his positions to his recent political successes. "You become a target where people want to characterize who you are, and I'm not really content with letting others characterize who I am," he said. "Because your opponents generally don't characterize you in a favorable fashion."

So how would Paul handle a newly aggressive Russia? The senator who joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year called Tuesday for trade sanctions against Moscow for its incursion into Crimea. "I think if Putin and Russia act like a rogue nation, they should be isolated," Paul said.

But he would not say whether that meant stronger or greater sanctions than President Obama has proposed. "I don't know if I can necessarily characterize it that way," he said.

"What I would say is that Crimea gets 80 percent of their water, their electricity, and gas from the part of Ukraine that is above them. They're at risk. [Putin] has a great deal of risk of losing electricity, gas, and water to the section that he's annexed," Paul said. He also would not say if that water and power should be shut off. "Ukraine has to make that decision," he said.

Paul did say he believes Putin "miscalculates" his odds of success. The senator said that by taking the typically Russia-supporting Crimean voters of out the Ukrainian electorate Putin is actually "pushing Ukraine into the West, and so I think he's cutting off his nose to spite his face."