- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sen. Rand Paul officially announced his bid Tuesday for the Republican presidential nomination, vowing to bring the tea party’s anti-Washington message to the 2016 contest under a “banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.”

But with Sen. Ted Cruz already in the race and Sen. Marco Rubio expected to join next week, three first-term Republicans hailed as champions of the tea party will be competing.

“We are kind of calling it the ‘tea party trifecta,’” said Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Tea Party Express. “I think it really speaks to the maturation of the tea party movement and just how far we have come since 2010.”

Whether there is enough tea to go around as the Republican primary battle heats up is a major question.

“The more the merrier has been our attitude all along, but only one candidate will be able to grow the party into a winning coalition. That candidate is Senator Rand Paul,” said Sergio Gor, a Paul spokesman.

Speaking at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Mr. Paul signaled that he plans to stick with the message of limited government that helped him win election to the Senate from Kentucky four years ago after upsetting an establishment-backed Republican for the party nomination.

SEE ALSO: IRS ordered to release list of targeted tea party groups

“We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare,” Mr. Paul said. “The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped.”

After a rough 2014 election season in which most of their candidates were shellacked in Republican primaries, tea party leaders said the trio in the presidential contest shows their movement still has life.

“The fact that the first three Republican candidates are going to be candidates that ran for the U.S. Senate and were elected to the U.S. Senate on tea party values and now intend to run for the presidency on tea party values shows the strength and maturity of the movement,” said Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.

Mr. Paul joins Mr. Cruz, elected to the Senate from Texas in 2012, as the first two major announced Republican candidates. Mr. Rubio, elected to the Senate from Florida in 2010, is expected to announce his campaign Monday. All three tea party favorites overcame better-funded, establishment-backed candidates en route to easy general election victories.

Mark Meckler, founder and president of Citizens for Self-Governance, said “grass-roots activists are excited by the prospect of having many leading candidates in the race who clearly speak to their values and whose actions match their words.”

He said the three will ensure that tea party views are major parts of Republican presidential conversations.

Some activists, though, warned that too many options could dilute tea party power and open the door for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or another establishment-backed moderate to emerge victorious.

Ken Crow, a tea party activist in Iowa, said he has been trying to organize a gathering of the movement’s leaders from across the country in hopes of unifying activists behind a single candidate.

Mr. Crow said he wants to avoid a repeat of 2012, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite, nearly won Iowa’s caucuses, finishing 34 votes behind former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania despite the heavy conservative cast of the state’s electorate.

“What happened in Iowa last time was this: You had groups that supported Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and on down the line it went, and come caucus time that vote, the uber-conservative vote, did get split four or five different ways,” he said.

Mr. Crow said Mr. Paul, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio all could have appeal in Iowa, making a tea party split a real possibility.

“All these candidates are going to dilute this [vote], and what I am fearful of is that the winner coming out of this being Jeb Bush,” he said.

He added, however, that his personal prediction is that businessman Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination riding his message and blunt style, which Mr. Crow said resonates with tea partyers.

Mr. Paul is banking on his libertarian brand of conservatism winning over voters who have fled the Republican Party, such as the young and minorities.

He plans to expand upon the loyal band of followers that his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian icon, cultivated during his two-plus decades in Congress and during his three White House runs.

Mr. Paul has championed reduced drug sentences for nonviolent offenders and restoring voting rights for some ex-cons. He supports medical marijuana, wants to curb the nation’s intelligence surveillance programs and calls for a more modest presence for the U.S. abroad.

“This message of liberty is for all Americans — Americans from all walks of life. 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,” Mr. Paul said Tuesday.

The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls shows that Mr. Paul and Mr. Cruz are running neck and neck nationally behind Mr. Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Mr. Rubio is running in the middle of the pack.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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