HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (WHAS11) -- His decision whether he will enter the 2016 presidential race still months away, U.S. Senator Rand Paul is already navigating presidential waters.
"We are doing things to be prepared if it were to happen," Paul said.
Paul officially announced his 2016 U.S. Senate re-election campaign this week, and acknowledged his political team is exploring several potential avenues to deal with a Kentucky state law which prohibits a candidate from appearing on the same ballot, twice.
In a wide ranging interview with WHAS11, Paul disclosed that his 2010 campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who resigned from the Mitch McConnell campaign in August, will again be part of Paul's campaign team. Paul also addressed questions about his efforts to broaden the reach of the Republican party and forge bi-partisan agreements, how his views have changed since his 2010 election and whether his own marijuana use in college influences his efforts now to lessen drug sentences.
Benton to be a part of campaign
Jesse Benton resigned as U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell's (R-Kentucky) campaign manager about two months before the November election, citing the potential to be a distraction to that campaign after a bribery scandal emerged connected to Congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2012. Benton was Ron Paul's campaign manager in 2008 and 2012.
In that case, a former Iowa state senator, Kent Sorensen, admitted in a plea deal that he concealed payments he received in exchange for defecting from the Michele Bachman presidential campaign to the Ron Paul campaign shortly before Iowa's 2012 caucuses.
Benton has consistently disputed any attempts to tie him to the case, describing politically motivated "inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors."
In the WHAS11 interview, Paul said he does not think Benton "did anything wrong," and questioned whether the federal investigation involving his father's campaign is politically motivated.
"You know I think one of the considerations when you look at any of this is that we are with an administation where there has been a lot of politically motivated investigations," Paul said, "And I think that has to be one consideration."
"I think the other consideration is that campaign finance laws are very, very complicated," Paul continued. "And you can do something that really I think ought to be like a civil fine for people and people end up not reporting it or reporting it in a way it wasn't supposed to be reported. And frankly it's so complicated if we threaten people with penalties that are above and beyond sort of, 'You need to pay a fine for being late on something,' I think we're going to scare a lot of good people away from helping."
"I think Jesse is honest, he's good at politics and I don't think he's done anything wrong," Paul said.
Paul declined to disclose what role Benton would play in his 2016 campaign.
"Jesse is married to my niece and was a big help in the Kentucky election here in 2010 and a big help for Sen. McConnell," Paul said. "And, yes he'll help us."
2016 Presidential race
Paul said he is still gauging whether his message is enough to capture the White House.
"For the last year or so we have been traveling extensively, meeting people, going sometimes to early primary states, trying to be a part of making the Republican Party bigger and seeing if the message that I have to make the party bigger resonates and whether it will be something that has a chance of potentially winning the day," he said.
Paul acknowledged a daylong series of meetings with top political advisers last month at a boutique hotel off Capitol Hill. That summit with his braintrust is just the latest sign that points toward a presidential campaign in 2016.
"That decision isn't made yet," Paul said, "but we are doing things to be prepared if it were to happen."
"We have a great organization with regard to spreading the message. It takes an organization just to spread the message of how the Republican Party should be bigger, more inclusive, more diverse, how we should go to Detroit, how we should go to the Urban league, how we should reach out to young people in Berkeley."
"All of those things have been going on with the hope that that is what Republicans will say, 'My goodness, this is how we will win a Republican election, how a Republican could actually win again,'" Paul continued.
"But do we have everybody in place? Have we made the decision? No," Paul said. "There's still uncertainty and time to sort of make final decisions over the next few months."
It's clear Paul believes he has a winning message, after campaigning for Republican candidates on the ballot last month in 35 states.
Paul has described the Republican victories on election night as a repudiation of potential presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, who also barnstormed the country for 2014 candidates.
Kentucky law prohibits appearing on same ballot in two different races
One potential complication for Paul's 2016 plans is the Kentucky state law that prohibits a candidate from appearing on the same ballot in more than one race.
Paul is exploring several avenues to overcome that complication.
"Some of that discussion will happen in the Spring," Paul said. "I will tell you though that independent of me there are other Republicans who have been frustrated by
the fact that our primary is so late in the process that nobody comes and campaigns in Kentucky. Kentucky hasn't been relevant in a presidential election really since I can remember."
Paul appeared to endorse the idea of Kentucky Republicans who want to replace the traditional May primary to choose a presidential candidate with an earlier nominating convention, instead.
"Going from late May and moving up to a convention would be both useful to me if I were to run but also useful and something that many people have been seeking independent of that," Paul said.
"We haven't made a final decision one way or another," Paul said, "other than I have decided I am going to run for reelection for the US Senate."
2010 Rand Paul vs 2014 Rand Paul
One week before the 2010 election, Paul shared the cover of Time Magazine with three other U.S. Senate "Party Crashers" candidates. Regarded as an "ideological purist," Paul was running both as a Republican and against establishment Republicans.
Four years later, Paul recently graced the Time cover solo, branded the "Most Interesting Man in Politics," subtitled "The reinventions of Rand Paul."
In the WHAS11 interview, Paul addressed how he has reshaped some political positions out of political realities and through experience.
"Well, I think you learn more about people and issues the more people you meet," Paul said when asked how the Rand Paul of 2014 compares with the Rand Paul of 2010.
"In 2009 and 2010, I was a eye surgeon from Bowling Green. And so people said, well your foreign policy has changed," Paul said.
"I'm like, I didn't have one when I was an eye surgeon from Bowling Green. You don't have, I think, a formed opinion on everything other than you know some things that are sort of universal principles, that we shouldn't spend more money than comes in, we should balance our budget, that less government in Washington is better than more government."
"Those are general principles that I still entirely believe," Paul said. "And on foreign policy I still completely believe that Congress should make the decision and no president should unilaterally take us to war that that power was vested in Congress."
Paul is the first senator to seek a formal declaration of war against the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, filing a joint resolution that would trigger a congressional debate and vote on the Obama administration's actions.
"Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it," Paul said.
In 2010, Paul introduced a resolution to eliminate all U.S. foreign aid. He now says because "we're a long ways away from that," he is advocating for a more gradual, targeted withdrawal of American aid.
"Still, ultimately, I don't think we should borrow money from China to give it to anybody," Paul said, "even to our allies. So, my position is pretty much the same. As I have talked to people though and tried to figure out how we would effectively do this, I've found there aren't very many people in Congress that are willing to say that."
"I think it's a little easier though if you're trying to get people started on learning that we shouldn't do this," Paul continued. "If you start out with people who are persecuting Christians, putting Christians to death for blasphemy. And so I've targeted countries to reduce foreign aid that aren't our friends and I think frankly perseute Christians and frankly are burning our flag and allowing mobs to burn our flag and allowing mobs to attack our embassy like they were in Egypt. I don't see any good reason to give those people money at all."
"And so, if there's a modification," Paul said. "It's been that if we are looking at where we reduce the money on foreign aid, let's start with people who hate us first and burning our flag and work our way down."
"But even our friends. and Israel is the big one everyone's mentioned. Even our friends like Israel, (Binyamin) Netanyahu said before a joint session of Congress in '96, yes someday we need to be independent."
Minority outreach and criminal justice reform
"So there are a lot of things that are exactly the same," Paul said. "There's also some things I've discovered like in particular many trips to the West End in Louisville, that I think a big problem with getting a job is a previous conviction when you're younger and I think we've disproportionately punished African Americans and Hispanics for non violent drug crimes and it's kept them in poverty or back in jail and kept them out of useful employment."
"And so over time as I've learned more about the situation we've become more active and we now have six bills in Congress to try to reform our criminal justice system and make it more fair."
"If your kid was caught selling marijuana or growing enough that it's a felony conviction, they could be in jail for an extended period of time, they also lose
their ability to be employable," Paul explained. "So I want to change all of that. I want to lessen the criminal penalties on it."
"We have mandatory minimum sentences that say if it's your second or third time, it's automatic life in prison in many states and in the federal government sometimes," Paul said. "I would eliminate mandatory minimums and immediately give discretion to judges."
Paul, however, is not calling for marijuana to be decriminalized. He is striking a balance on the issue and does not want to be seen as an advocate for the use of marijuana.
"I think (drugs) are not a good idea," Paul said. "Even people who say marijuana is no big deal. No, I think marijuana is a problem for our kids and I think it's a mistake for kids to be smoking even marijuana. Even though it may not kill you I don't think it's good for you. It's not good for studies, it's not good for showing up for work."
Yet, four years after deflecting questions whether he smoked marijuana while in college, Paul also appears to acknowledge his own marijuana use.
"Let's just say I wasn't a choir boy when I was in college," Paul replied when asked whether he smoked marijuana while in college, "and that I can recognize that kids make mistakes, and I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid."
Paul was quick to point out the admitted or presumed drug use by the past three previous presidents.
"Think about the last three presidents we've had," Paul said. "Bush, Obama and Clinton all either admitted or skirted around the issue and said, 'Well, yeah, maybe they did break the law when they were a kid.'
"If they had been poor or lived in poverty or lived in one of our big cities where there are a lot of patrols, there's a good chance none of them would have ever excelled," Paul continued, "So I have a great deal of personal sympathy for people who have made mistakes as a young person."
It's an issue that wins him crossover appeal. Last month, a studio audience applauded when Paul condemned the "War on Drugs" in response to a query from HBO host Bill Maher.
"You said in 2000, the War on Drugs is an abysmal failure and a waste of money. Are you still on that page?" Maher asked.
"I'm absolutely there," Paul said. "And I'll do everything to end the War on Drugs."
The issue also prompts scrutiny that Paul largely deflected during his Senate run four years ago. The "Aqua Buddha" chapter of that race is largely remembered for the Jack Conway campaign questioning Paul's religion based on an account by a college classmate of Paul's.
But, until now, Paul never directly addressed his alleged marijuana use described by contemporaries in the Aqua Buddha story.
"It's not good for a lot of things," Paul said. "That being said, I don't want to put our kids in prison for it."
With the presidential race and its increased scrutiny of Paul's record and past looming, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to address now.
"No , not really," Paul replied. "I think that people know a lot about me. And I think that if I wanted people to know something about me, is that I honestly want the country to be a better place for everybody to live in, that as a physician, I am a problem solver. I want to figure out how to solve problems like the drug problem and I don't care if it's a Republican or a Democrat."
Paul pointed to bi-partisan efforts with Democratic Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Leader Harry Reid (NV) and Barbara Boxer (CA)
"I've had lunch with Eric Holder," Paul continued. "I don't go around just saying, 'Every Democrat is a bad person.' I try to look for things I can work with them on."
"It doesn't make me any less conservative. I'm still pretty darn conservative."
Fort Knox gold
Expressing concern that the Federal Reserve has the ability to secertly sell or swap gold with other countries, Paul's father, Ron Paul, has called for an audit and inventory all of the nation's gold reserves.
Does Rand Paul share his father's call for a Fort Knox audit?
"No, I never have said that," Paul said. "But I don't know, people always come up and say, 'Is there any gold in Ft Knox? Should we count it? And we never have. I've had four years and we never have sort of said, 'Let's go count the gold.'"
"I dont know," Paul continued. "I think auditing our resources in general or auditing the federal reserve, auditing the pentagon and knowing where our resources are - what we spend what we haven't, but I don't suspect some great conspiracy that the gold has disappeared or anything like that."
Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader
Paul said the U.S. Senate will operate as it should once Republicans take control in January.
"From being in the minority for four years I can tell you how it hasn't worked," Paul said. "And I think one of the ways it hasn't worked is the minority party wasn't allowed to partcipate at all."
"I think Sen. McConnell understands how the Senate works, and he's going to let Democrats offer amendments. We're going to have a fairly open amendment process, bills will get passed. It will take a week or two to pass a bill," Paul continued. "We might have to work on Fridays, he said.
"I think you'll see bill after bill after bill presented to the president, and we'll see does he want to work with us or is he going to be an obstructionist?"
Four years after McConnell endorsed then Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) over Paul in Kentucky's U.S. Senate primary, McConnell and Paul have forged an alliance with McConnell helping Paul in the mechanics of being a senator and Paul lending McConnell his tea party support. McConnell is an early endorser of Paul's presidential run, if Paul chooses to run.
"I think he's a man of his word," Paul said when asked to describe Kentucky's longest serving U.S. Senator. "I think he's somebody who really has the best interests of the country involved. I think because of his long term involvement, sometimes people get polarized in this way or that way on him."
"But I think from everything that I've seen - even when I don't agree with him - I do think the things he's trying to do are for the good of the country and trying to drag legislation in the correct way. And from the outside, we come in and we want what we want - we want what we think is right - and sometimes dragging it in the right direction may not be enough for some of us, but I always think he's trying to drag and push legislation in the direction of what's best for Kentucky and the country."