Rand Paul Tries to Fight His Way Back to the Main Stage

The Republican contender is making a last-ditch effort to quality for the next primetime Republican debate.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The past few days haven’t been kind to Rand Paul.

On Monday, Fox Business declared that the Republican presidential candidate didn’t make the polling cutoff for Thursday’s GOP primetime debate. Instead, Paul would be relegated to an earlier and decidedly less prestigious debate, an event that Senator Lindsey Graham jokingly nicknamed the “happy hour” debate. (Paul reacted to the bad news by sending an email to supporters with the subject line: “Are you kidding me?”).

It’s quite a blow. Paul has struggled to gain traction in a crowded GOP field, as the voices of candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have drowned out competitors. Thursday would mark the first time the senator has not appeared on the main stage. Since Paul needs all the attention he can get, the event could spark a downward spiral for his campaign.

Paul isn’t going down without a fight. The 2016 contender initially vowed to boycott the debate. (“I won’t participate in anything that’s not the first tier because we have a first tier campaign,” he told CNN on Monday.) By Wednesday, however, Paul was engaging in a pressure campaign to get back onto the main stage. Deploying a tactic used by other candidates to gin up sympathy, including Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders, Paul launched an attack on the political establishment, blaming the Republican Party for his exclusion from the debate. “They have been saying for months they’re going to narrow the field, but I don’t think it’s the job of the establishment in the Republican Party to decide who is and who isn’t [in],” Paul complained in an interview on MSNBC.

The campaign also suggested that a recount is in order. On Wednesday, it promoted a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in Iowa showing Paul ahead of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich—all of whom landed spots in Thursday’s primetime debate. “[Rand] belongs in the main debate … It would be an outrage to continue to keep him out,” a campaign email read. The poll took place within the timeframe for inclusion in the debate criteria, but it was not released early enough to be counted. As Politico points out, if the results had been released earlier “Paul would likely have qualified for the main stage.”

The setback appeared to prompt some soul searching from Paul. The senator wondered aloud during his MSNBC interview on Wednesday why all this has befallen him, casting himself as a voice of reason in the Republican party. “I am the one voice saying we shouldn’t make the sand glow. I am the one voice saying … the government shouldn’t be collecting all your records, and I’m the one voice saying we shouldn’t lock up every kid for marijuana,” Paul said. But caution and restraint haven’t resonated in the GOP primary election so far. Fact checks debunking Trump’s claims have not diminished his appeal with conservative voters, while Cruz’s calls to bomb ISIS “into oblivion” and find out whether “sand can glow in the dark” appeal to an electorate gripped by anxiety over the threat of terrorism.

Fox Business defended its debate lineup on Wednesday. “We announced the criteria in December and clearly stated the polling needed to be conducted and released by Monday, January 11th at 6 pm/ET,” a Fox Business Network spokesperson said in a statement.

Adding insult to injury, the Senate rejected Paul’s legislation to audit the Federal Reserve on Tuesday, dealing the beleaguered senator another defeat.

Whether Paul’s gambit to make it to the primetime debate will work remains an open question. The Paul campaign told Politico on Wednesday that it had reached out to Fox Business and that they “expect to hear from them soon.”

The campaign may be able to capitalize on its exclusion from the debate to fundraise, attract attention to the candidate, and portray Paul as an outsider fighting against the establishment. A similar strategy paid off for Fiorina. After her campaign accused the political establishment of “rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage” in September, CNN changed its criteria, a move that opened the door for  the Republican contender to participate in the primetime event. But that victory ultimately proved unavailing. This time around, Fiorina, like Paul, did not make the cut for the debate main stage.