MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Sen. Rand Paul’s first days as a presidential candidate have not gone as planned.
The tea party favorite, first-term senator and son of a three-time presidential candidate, Paul is no stranger to attention. But in opening his campaign, he betrayed a hot temperament that, by his own admission, needs some control.
After defensive and dodging press interviews about abortion, Iran and his shifting views on some issues, he acknowledged, “I will have to get better at holding my tongue and holding my temper.”
His first-day drama and his history in the Senate suggest that might be a tough task.
“I think he’s still new at this,” said Andrew Cash, a 31-year-old lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, who attended Paul’s rally in the state Thursday. “He’s been around politics for a long time, but it’s his first presidential campaign, and that’s a different beast.”
Paul skipped encounters with the media altogether after his Mount Pleasant rally.
In his first 24 hours as a contender, Paul lectured an NBC anchor about how to ask a question and told another to print his “five-minute answer” when asked an abortion question that he had answered earlier on a Kentucky Right to Life questionnaire.
He then picked a fight on the issue with the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, hardly a sin in Republican circles but a provocation he might not have needed in his earliest days of defining himself as a candidate.
Taken together, it’s clear his transition from Senate iconoclast to candidate for the GOP nomination has been a rocky one.
“I think we can all get better,” Paul told Fox News on Wednesday. “I mean, I’m not perfect.”
Paul has always been an antagonistic figure. He won his Senate seat by challenging an establishment-favored Republican in the primary and quickly set about bucking his party’s leadership on domestic spending, foreign policy and more. Arizona Sen. John McCain — a man who’s gone far despite his own hotheaded episodes — once called his fellow Republican one of the “wacko birds” of the Senate.
Yet Paul’s prickly demeanor could be an asset in his quest for the nomination, especially among conservative and libertarian activists. Paul’s pitch is that he’s a Washington outsider who fights the establishment, which in his view includes reporters.
“Thankfully, our national media doesn’t get to pick and choose our Republican Party’s presidential nominees,” Paul tweeted. Backers seemed to agree: He raised more than $1 million in online donations in his first day.
Almost immediately after declaring his candidacy, Paul was struggling to explain his positions.
On Fox News, a favorite venue for Republicans, Paul faced questions about his shift on Iran, from saying in 2007 that it was “ridiculous” to think Iranians threatened U.S. security to his more hawkish stance now.
“You know, things do change over time,” Paul said.
The next morning, he was pressed again about changing views.
“No, no, no, you’ve editorialized it,” Paul told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Listen.”
He later refused to say in an Associated Press interview whether he thought any ban on abortion should include exceptions in cases of rape, incest or risk to the life of the woman. “I gave you about a five-minute answer,” he said. “Put in my five-minute answer.”
He actually answered that question crisply in 2010, when asked on a Right to Life survey that has his signature if he opposes abortion in the case of rape or incest. He replied in the affirmative.
Later, he questioned why the Democratic National Committee wasn’t being pressed on abortion.
“Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it OK to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus?” he offered.
In response, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said: “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”
Not quite end of story: She also needled Paul about shushing a female reporter on CNBC before he entered the race. “I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ‘shushing’ me,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Paul took umbrage at suggestions he is especially combative with female interviewers.
“I think I’ve been universally short-tempered and testy with both male and female reporters,” he told CNN. “I’ll own up to that.”
His impatient streak has been seen before. During a forum sponsored by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch earlier this year, Paul leaned back in his armchair and appeared annoyed as rivals Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas explained their foreign policy views.
As Rubio spoke, Paul looked down at his cowboy boots and turned his back from his rivals.
“I’m kind of surrounded on this,” Paul said dryly.
Elliott reported from Washington.
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