In South Carolina, Paul seeks common ground among GOP
(CNN) — Making his political debut in the early presidential primary state of South Carolina, Sen. Rand Paul on Friday leveled blows against the Obama administration and sought to fuse some of his libertarian-leaning positions with the wider Republican Party platform.
The first-term senator from Kentucky, who's considering a White House bid, addressed his criticism of Guantanamo Bay, the government's surveillance programs and his proposals to cut defense spending--three topics that fall out of line with mainstream Republicans.
Paul spoke before a crowd in Columbia at a casual barbeque dinner hosted by the state's Republican Party. Friday's trip to South Carolina marked the third leg of his early-voting state circuit; last month he headlined events in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his summer plans involve more trips to early states.
Read more: Rand Paul's Republican balancing act
Warming up his audience on Friday night, he tackled a topic they likely all agree on: reducing the federal deficit.
Paul criticized President Barack Obama for crying wolf over the forced spending cuts this year, which slashed $85 billion from the budget through September 30.
"On the sequester, I think we're actually winning the battle on this, the public relations battle. The president said 'the sky is falling, the world will end, oh my, we cannot possibly have the sequester'," Paul said. "But we survived. The world isn't ending."
Paul described the decision to slice budgets for air traffic controllers and meat inspectors as simply a scare tactic.
"I think people saw through it and saw it frankly as a charade," he said. "They saw that he was playing games, and I think he's losing respect from the public for this."
Paul's comments were a daring move, given that some in the Republican Party opposed the cuts, known in Washington as sequestration, because of their expected hit on the military, and South Carolina is home to eight military installations.
The senator, however, did not mention that Congress and Obama agreed to change the rules for the implementation of the spending reductions, including a measure that gave the military and some agencies more leeway for absorbing the cuts. The bill also prevented furloughs for meat inspectors and traffic controllers.
Paul ticked off other examples of wasteful spending, including studies he frequently mentions that involved robotic squirrels and monkeys on methamphetamine.
He stayed on message, too, when he talked about a need for reduced spending in the Department of Defense.
"People say, you're not going to go to South Carolina and talk about waste in the military, are you?" he joked.
"There's waste everywhere," Paul continued. "It doesn't mean I'm against national defense. National defense is the most important thing we spend money on. It's one of the few legitimate constitutional functions--it should be a priority."
But, he added, that doesn't mean it gets a "blank check."
"I think we should audit the Pentagon," he said.
Paul also reiterated his opposition to the government's recently revealed surveillance programs, which include the collecting of phone records for Americans. Since the programs were leaked, Paul has hammered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for not being straight with Congress about the existence of the data collection.
"People say the leaks have damaged our security. You know what's damaged our security--is lying. Because I don't know now whether to trust them," he said, drawing applause from the audience.
Officials with the National Security Agency and the FBI have defended the programs, which also include online surveillance of suspects overseas, saying they've helped the government thwart more than 50 terrorist plots.
But Paul, siding with some liberals on the issue, said he was convinced all 50 of those cases could have been prevented and the suspects could have been caught through traditional warrants.
He used the argument to pivot to what he considers one of the country's greatest assets: its justice system. Talking about Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Paul said he has "no sympathy" for the 19-year-old.
"I'd just as soon pull the switch-after he has a trial and after he's convicted," he said. But sending him to Guantanamo Bay would be the wrong move.
"Our courts-we should be proud of 'em. He's going to be convicted. He's going to be punished. But it's better than sending someone indefinitely somewhere around the world and not trying them," he said.
He compared the detention of suspects in Guantanamo Bay to "awful times" in American history, when black people were lynched without a trial or when Japanese-Americans were kept in camps during World War II.
He added that Republicans need to "stand up for our system."
"I think these ideas of justice are what branch us out and make us a bigger party," he said.
Optimism is also key for Republicans, he said. "When I think of what our message should be, I think of Patrick Henry: Give me liberty or give me death."