BERKELEY, Calif. — A mile from one of the most famous liberal campuses, Rand Paul is sipping coffee in a packed college café and answering a question about Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
He stops mid-sentence.
The Republican senator is focused on someone on the other side of the coffee house.
“I don’t know if we’re being filmed or not,” the Kentuckian says, lowering his voice.
Some unknown patron — slyly hiding behind a dividing wall in the coffee shop — seems to be using a camera phone. He’s pointing it at us.
After a few more seconds, Paul brushes it off. “NSA’s got people everywhere,” he jokes.
That gets Paul back on the subject he flew across the country to talk about. It’s Wednesday afternoon, an hour before Paul — dressed casually in jeans, a white buttoned down shirt, red tie and cowboy boots — is set to deliver an anti-government spying speech here on the campus of the University of California.
Paul is seated on a couch in the corner of this coffee house. The Shattuck Avenue joint is just how you would imagine a Berkeley café: students staring at laptops; posters advertising poetry classes; drinks with mint leaves; a compost bin for waste.
The likely 2016 presidential candidate is not shy about why he ventured here. “I think the Republican Party will not win again until we figure out how to expand our base,” Paul said in an interview at Philz Coffee. “So my goal in being here is to say that, ‘look, maybe I’m the Republican that can attract votes even at Berkeley.'”
Paul is convinced one way to do that is to talk about issues like government surveillance. “The message of privacy is something that may be able to attract kids of all walks of life — whether you are a liberal at Berkeley or a conservative at Berkeley or an independent at Berkeley,” he said. “It is an issue that unifies the youth.”
Paul said he is disturbed by the new claims made by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein that the CIA illegally searched her staffers’ computers.
Asked if he’s worried something like that could happen to his office, considering his outspokenness on the issue, he replied: “I worry it could happen to anybody generally. I don’t have sort of a particular paranoia about it happening to me.”
He announced during his Berkeley Forum address on Wednesday that he plans to call for a special committee on Capitol Hill to investigate the domestic spying by government agencies. This comes after filing a class-action lawsuit — with the help of former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli — against President Obama over the government’s collection of telephone metadata.
During the coffee house conversation, Paul said: “When you sign up with a phone company or an Internet company, I don’t think you’re giving up your right to privacy.”
Paul’s remarks on Wednesday even drew interest from liberals like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, both of whom attended the campus event and stood in the back.
“This is a vexing issue,” Newsom said of privacy issues after the event. “A challenging issue. And I think it’s important conversation. And that’s why I took the time to come over.”
One student who attended the speech, Berkeley sophomore Riley Stack, said he is “pretty open politically” and is skeptical of some of Paul’s stances but sympathizes with Paul on this issue.
“It is true,” said the 20-year-old Stack. “He made a good point about bridging the partisan gap. There are issues that we should not be held up on, like government surveillance.”
But back in D.C., Paul’s speech was criticized by hawkish conservatives. Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain campaign spokesman, tweeted: “Rand Paul goes to Berkeley to attack the US intelligence community….he’s going to get killed for that in a Republican primary.”
Paul brushed aside that sort of criticism, arguing that the issue broadens the party’s appeal: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
Asked in the interview how he thinks he is misunderstood politically by his critics, Paul paused for a few seconds. He then disputed the notion that he is “identical” to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, on all policy issues.
“I think over time, people will notice there are distinctions and differences,” he said.
Reporters sometimes ask Paul, he said, to comment on his father’s beliefs. But he said he’s done doing that. “I’ve pretty much quit answering” those questions.
“I’ve been in the Senate three years, and I have created a record of myself,” he said. “And I have my opinions.”
He referenced George W. Bush’s campaign for president in 2000.
“Did he get tons of questions about his dad?” Paul asked. “I don’t know that he did, to tell you the truth.”
Paul said he honestly hasn’t made up his mind yet on a 2016 presidential campaign. He has hinted that his wife will play a big part in that decision, which he intends to make after the midterm elections.
“We’re still talking about it,” he said. “And it’s not completely decided, really, which way we’re going to go on it.”
Asked if the environment could be any better for him to run, Paul replied: “I think the mood of the country is in the direction of people who want to defend privacy and want a more reasonable foreign policy, but also are much more fiscally conservative than this president and believe that the debt is a problem as well.”
“I think that the mood of the country is in our direction,” he repeated.