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The effort created a buzz in GOP circles, including in New Hampshire.

But it also drew the ire of GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina back in Washington, exposing a long simmering rift over national security between the libertarian-leaning and defense-minded wings of the party.

Mr. Paul countered at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference that the “GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered.” He followed that up with a win over Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the 2013 Washington Times-CPAC presidential preference straw poll.

Since then, he has pushed back against the Obama administration’s push for tighter gun control laws, said states should decide same-sex marriage, and urged black voters to give the GOP a second look as part of his effort to broaden the party’s base.

He also has taken the lead in criticizing the Democrat considered by many to be that party’s standard bearer in 2016: former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Sunday, the Kentucky senator said he stands by his comments that his potential rival’s handling of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi should “preclude her from holding higher office.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley asked if the Clinton-bashing was a politically motivated attempt to appeal to the GOP faithful in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I’ve done it in every state and every stop because I think it’s pretty important that she accept blame for not providing security,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Whether it has political overtones or not, it really goes to the heart of who you are as secretary of state if you do not provide security for an embassy that’s begging for it. That’s absolutely a dereliction of duty, and she should have resigned and accepted blame for it.”