LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Rand Paul accused his fellow Republicans on Tuesday of contributing to Washington’s dysfunction, launching a 2016 White House bid with a vow to shatter the status quo and defend individual freedoms.
The first-term senator from Kentucky, a libertarian with a reputation for challenging party orthodoxy, criticized both Republicans and Democrats for helping to drive up the federal debt and reduce personal liberties.
He cast himself as an anti-establishment reformer who could break partisan gridlock and win new converts to the party, saying his fellow Republicans fall prey to the allure of special interests in Washington.
“The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped,” he told cheering supporters while standing on a flag-draped stage in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Both parties and the entire political system are to blame,” he said. “Too often, when Republicans have won, we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That’s not who I am.”
Paul is the second major Republican to jump into the 2016 race after Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. A crowded field is expected, with candidates competing hard for constituencies ranging from the Christian right to traditional Wall Street Republicans.
In a speech that kicked off a four-day campaign trip to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the 52-year-old former eye surgeon took a shot at unnamed Republican foes, warning against nominating someone from the party who is a “Democrat-lite.”
Republican strategists said Paul’s attack was a familiar effort to stand out in a big field.
“Rand Paul is trying to cast himself as the anti-big government, anti-D.C. machinery, anti-establishment candidate,” Republican strategist Ana Navarro said. “He’s made an art form out of it and made a name for himself in the process.”
Paul is now in the second tier of Republican candidates, drawing the support of 8.4 percent of Republicans, according to a March Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll.
He is behind former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has said he is exploring a bid, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He is in a statistical tie with four other Republicans: Cruz, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Paul, who entered Congress on the Tea Party wave of 2010, has been reaching out in recent months to attract more mainstream voters and to reach minorities and young voters who have not favored Republicans in the past.
“The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor,” he said.
He proposed economic freedom zones that could aid impoverished areas like Detroit and eastern Kentucky, and he highlighted growing inequality in America while praising his sons for working in minimum wage jobs while in college.
“Under the watch of both parties, the poor seem to get poorer and the rich get richer. Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages has only widened the income gap,” Paul said.
On many issues, however, Paul stands in line with other Republicans, such as his opposition to Obamacare and to abortion.
In addition, Paul, who once mounted a 13-hour filibuster to call attention to the United States’ use of drones, in recent months has moved to align himself more with the hawks in his party. He proposed an increase in military spending last month, and he told the Louisville crowd he envisioned a national defense “unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by overseas nation-building.”
“Let’s quit building bridges in foreign countries and use that money to build some bridges here at home,” Paul said.
The one-time firebrand who wants to scale back the authority of the Federal Reserve also has been quietly courting Wall Street donors and raising money for fellow Republicans, at times upsetting the grassroots activists who have made him a national figure.
In Louisville, the crowd cheered loudly when he introduced his father, Ron Paul, the libertarian former congressman who built an army of loyal activists during failed presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Paul promised to put a quick end to National Security Agency surveillance of phone records and other activities and said he would campaign with “the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.”
Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson and Steve Holland; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Leslie Adler