While Republican presidential candidates duked it out Thursday night in North Charleston, South Carolina, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) was lounging in a leather swivel chair.
He was about 750 miles away, at Twitter’s Manhattan headquarters in the Chelsea neighbourhood, cracking jokes about other presidential candidates and fielding questions from supporters.
Begrudgingly or not, after failing to make the cut for the main-stage Republican presidential debate and declining an invitation to participate in an earlier, lower-tier debate, Paul decided on what he thought was the best possible alternative: Get in front of as many of his 750,000 followers as possible, and see if anything happened.
“Before social media, people would just go away, crawl in a corner and then they’re done, because the media destroyed them,” Paul told Business Insider in an interview before the debate. “The media can’t destroy you anymore.”
It wasn’t clear, though, that the senator had a distinct plan in mind going in.
Shortly before the livestream began, Paul remarked that if he were a regular voter paying attention to the debate, he likely wouldn’t be looking at Twitter. Sergio Gor, the Paul campaign’s communications director, attempted to parlay Paul’s scepticism, making a comparison that the senator seemed to understand.
“You know how you talk about throwing your remote at the TV? That’s kind of what this is,” Gor said.
Eventually, Paul’s debate-night livestream certainly put the senator in a more comfortable environment than the traditional debate stage, where critics say that he’s often underperformed and underwhelmed alongside a crowded group.
While other presidential candidates faced direct, probing questions, Paul calmly fielded curated tweets that mostly allowed him to stick to his comfortable campaign talking points: curbing the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers, reducing the federal deficit by cutting entitlement and military spending, and auditing the Federal Reserve.
And while other presidential candidates hurled attacks at each other, the senator used the vacuum of opponents to throw elbows at pretty much all of his rivals in rapid succession.
Paul mocked former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s supposed college-football pandering. He reamed into Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) for missing votes in the Senate. And he slammed front-runner Donald Trump on everything from his property rights battles to his supposed lack of knowledge about the US’ nuclear arsenal.
He was later informed that one of Paul’s supporters who tweeted at the campaign was Canadian. Paul took a free shot Cruz, whose Canadian birth has been the source of campaign-trail controversy for the past two weeks.
“The first time we’ve had one of your countrymen run for president,” Paul quipped.
Finally, Paul went after Gov. Chris Christie (R), who he called the “bully from New Jersey.” Paul knocked Christie for his vow to enforce federal marijuana laws even in states where sales are currently legal.
Despite zingers, Paul did not appear all that interested in either of Thursday night’s debates.
The senator admitted that he was exercising while the early, lower-tier debate aired. The screens at Twitter’s headquarters were tuned into Fox Business during the primetime debate. But Paul had his back turned from the screens for the debate’s vast majority.
Paul, in fact, repeatedly emphasised Thursday night that he was actually enjoying being absent from the debate.
“So far, I like this better than the formal debate, I think,” Paul said.
“This is way more fun than the dumba– livestream,” he added, a reference comments he made about his attempt to livestream an entire day on the campaign trail last year. “This isn’t livestreaming, is it?”
And as the night progressed, Twitter statistics started to roll in showing Paul picking up more new followers than many other candidates onstage. He was trending as a topic on Twitter, and he appeared upbeat.
“Maybe we should just tell them in advance we won’t show up for any more of their stupid debates,” Paul said, referring to the Republican National Committee and the television networks hosting the debates.
“He added: They’re beating us down with the news coverage, they’re keeping us off the stage, but they can’t keep us off the Internet.”
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