URBANDALE, Iowa (CNN) — Rand Paul wears his political ambition for all to see. Look no further than the tie he sported during a three-day trip to Iowa. It had yellow images of corn, the crop that epitomizes politics in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
“And by coincidence, I have one in the shape of South Carolina,” the Kentucky Republican said Wednesday, drawing laughs.
He was speaking at a Republican breakfast outside Des Moines at Machine Shed, a Midwest restaurant chain where the waiters wear overalls and drinks are served in Mason jars.
As Paul blitzed across the Hawkeye State this week, holding events at Iowa GOP offices and campaigning for local candidates, he hardly played coy to the question of whether he was running for President. After all, his nine-city trip marked his fourth visit to the state since the 2012 election.
“I don’t know why Iowa keeps popping up on my calendar, but it seems to be pretty frequent,” he said Monday, clearly with sarcasm.
His itinerary this time included a campaign-style schedule where he continued testing his 2016 message on the road.
From reducing the federal deficit to defending civil liberties and reforming the criminal justice system, Paul mostly stayed on his talking points.
But the trip was not without controversy.
His combative answer to a reporter’s question — combined with video of Paul appearing to avoid an immigration activist — absorbed most of the attention surrounding his visit.
Experts say it’s unlikely those story lines will derail any progress Paul has made in the state with voters, but his comments could underscore questions some Republicans have about his foreign policy, especially as he seeks to broaden his appeal.
At his first stop on Monday, which actually took place in Omaha, Nebraska, near the Iowa state line, Paul held a news conference after touring a tech startup venue with Nebraska GOP Senate hopeful Ben Sasse.
Asked if he still supported phasing out foreign aid to Israel, Paul fired back at a reporter for “mischaracterizing” his position and staunchly denied that he had ever proposed such legislation.
But it’s well-documented that he called for ending all foreign aid, including assistance to Israel, and sought support in Congress for his proposal in 2011.
In Iowa, Paul stressed that he never introduced legislation that solely “targeted” Israel and argued that he strongly favors sending money to the country.
Still, he added, Israel will be better positioned in the long run without foreign assistance.
“Every country ultimately would be better off to be independent,” he said on Tuesday.
Paul is also taking heat for quickly exiting a tense moment when an immigration activist confronted Rep. Steve King at a fundraiser while the two lawmakers ate dinner Monday night.
Video of the incident shows Paul, at the behest of his press aide, quickly getting up from the table and getting away from the confrontation. Paul said he was stepping away to do interviews with local media.
Whether or not those interviews were hastened because of the activist is unclear. Still, the video quickly spread and it was enough for critics to frame a narrative that Paul bolted from an uncomfortable exchange.
The dust-ups in his trip made headlines and ate up much of the coverage of his Iowa visit.
David Kochel, Mitt Romney’s Iowa strategist in 2008 and 2012, said he doubts caucus voters will judge Paul negatively for leaving after “someone tried to sandbag him.”
“I think he’s fine on that,” he said. “As for Israel, that’s a little more difficult. You have social conservatives in Iowa who very much feel the need to be in solidarity with Israel — not just Christian conservatives, but it’s also national security conservatives.”
While Paul has voted in favor of sending more aid to Israel this year and has proposed cutting off aid to the Palestinians, his past statements and views on foreign policy are rooted in his libertarian leanings — a perspective still largely outside of mainstream Republican thought.
“He’ll probably have work to do on that issue,” Kochel continued. “It could be one of those things that might limit his potential.”
Still, Kochel thinks Paul is the current frontunner in Iowa among prospective candidates. He points to Paul’s frequent travel to the state, his efforts to build a wider GOP, and the network of supporters built by his father’s presidential campaigns the past two cycles.
‘Son of Ron’
In the 2012 Iowa caucuses, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished with 21% of the vote, just slightly behind Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum — who tied for first at 25%.
Many of Ron Paul’s supporters were previously inactive in politics, citing a lack of candidates who represented their views.
“Your father cured my apathy,” one man told Rand Paul at an event in Council Bluffs.
Building off Ron Paul’s 2012 momentum, the so-called liberty faction of Iowa’s Republican Party eventually took control of party leadership.
Mainstream Republicans, with the support of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, wrestled back control earlier this year.
But Paul knows he needs more than just the libertarian wing of the party. As seen in his trip this week, he’s going after the state’s social conservatives and business Republicans, too.
“Paul is attempting to pivot from being ‘Son of Ron,’ so to speak,” said Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines. “He’s never going to deny that or reject it. But he has the view that Republicans need a broader base or broader range than some other candidates have maintained.”
Paul spoke at five GOP offices this week and five other events in a tour that took him around the state in a 730-mile loop. At each stop, Paul’s main message sought to counter post-2012 perceptions that the Republican Party should change its message.
“I say ‘hell no.’ We have to be more boldly for what we’re for,” he said at the GOP office in Davenport. It’s a mantra he has repeated in his travels across the country this year.
But he proposes doing so with some traditional and unorthodox ideas for mainstream Republicans. Part of that includes a push to speak out against domestic surveillance programs and mount a strong defense of the Fourth Amendment.
He has also been aggressive in courting voters and even Democrats to help expand the party. To do that, he’s urging for reform to the criminal justice system with reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and the restoration of voting rights to nonviolent felons after they get out of jail.
In Northwest Iowa, home to many of the state’s social conservatives, Paul placed an evangelical spin on his message.
“Many of us are Christians, we believe in a second chance in our religion. Anybody here who’s not a sinner, raise their hand,” he said Monday night at a fundraiser in Okoboji. “We believe in redemption, should the law allow people a second chance.”
But that’s about as deep as Paul waded into social issues during the trip. He didn’t talk about abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage until audience members asked him about the issues at one of his final events.
Asked whether he supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Paul said he “favors the concept” of traditional marriage but argued the federal government should stay out marriage entirely.
“I don’t want to register my guns in Washington or my marriage,” he said.
The previous past two winners of Iowa caucuses, Santorum and Mike Huckabee, both ran on a vocal platform with regard to social issues. Goldford said if Paul doesn’t devote more attention to those topics, someone else will step in to fill in the void.
“To function in Iowa he’s going to have to address the concerns of conservative evangelicals because Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are going to do that,” he said.
Paul left Iowa before this weekend’s annual summit hosted by the Family Leader, a group that’s influential with social conservatives in the state. Guest speakers include Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Paul said he couldn’t make it due to a scheduling conflict. But he indicated he’d be back.
“You have to meet people four, five, six times in Iowa because they expect a real personal touch, and I think it’s actually one of the good things about the process,” he told reporters, before needlessly adding: “if I decide to do this.”