HOUSTON — Toughen up.
That's the message U.S. Sen. Rand Paul had Friday for his Republican opponents pursuing the presidential nomination, all of whom have their sights set on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton after being shut out of the White House for six years.
“We need to know how to win again, though, and the way we win is not by playing nice with the Clintons or excusing their graft, excusing their enrichment of themselves through their political service," Paul said during a rally at a downtown Houston hotel. "We have to go head to head, knuckle to knuckle with the Clintons."
"They don’t play nice," Paul added. "We need to play hardball."
He garnered loud applause with his oft-repeated line that Clinton's tenure as secretary of state means she "should forever be precluded from being commander-in-chief." But he cautioned the GOP stands to lose the presidency again in 2016 if it does not go toe to toe with Clinton, specifically on her stewardship of the State Department.
"It was a mistake in the last election not to challenge President Obama on Benghazi," he said, referring to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that occurred on Clinton's watch.
And if Texas Republicans were searching for their best shot against her, Paul urged them to look no further. He boasted that polling shows him with a lead over Clinton in five states won by Obama, an indicator of general-election potential that he attributed to a fiscally conservative record and inclusive approach to campaigning.
That strategy brought him here in his first campaign swing through Texas as a declared candidate. Paul, who was raised in Lake Jackson and went to Baylor University, is making an early effort to organize in the state, which has a sooner-than-usual primary on March 1. His campaign has set up a shop in Austin and recruited top talent from the Lone Star State, including former state GOP chairman Steve Munisteri.
Munisteri, a longtime friend of the Paul family, was on hand in Houston to introduce Paul, calling him the most unique White House hopeful in a lifetime. Munisteri also nodded to the crowded field of GOP opponents with Texas connections, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Some of you may be asking yourself what is the Texas state chairman [doing] endorsing the senator from Kentucky when rumor has it there is a sitting elected Texan running, that there is a former elected official running ... there is a father of a statewide elected official," Munisteri said. "Some people say, 'Aren’t you sticking your neck out?' And I say, 'Darn right, I’m sticking my neck out.' You know why? Because Rand Paul is worth taking a chance and sacrificing for."
Paul was scheduled to attend a fundraiser later Friday in Houston. Members of his family were also expected to pitch in on the trip, hosting other events in Houston and Lake Jackson, which has father represented in Congress for more than two decades.