Despite trying to put distance between himself and his father, Sen. Rand Paul appears to be holding onto the supporters who powered former Rep. Ron Paul through the past two presidential campaigns.
Until last week, it had been more than a year — the end of the elder Mr. Paul's 2012 presidential campaign — since the two made a major splash at an event together, and the son has been studiously staking out his own political stances.
The younger Mr. Paul's eventual endorsement of Mitt Romney in last year's election also rankled some of his father's devoted supporters, who said it was a surrender of libertarian principles.
But to those at the 2013 Liberty Political Action Conference in Fairfax County from Thursday through Saturday, it makes sense for the senator from Kentucky to carve out his own national profile independent from his father — though he remains a viable standard-bearer for their movement.
"I see it as a tactical move," said Sean Godfrey, a 30-year-old from Alaska. "I think that Rand is pure, I think he is for liberty, but I think he is trying to come off in way that is not going to turn off the people who would not have supported his dad."
For instance, Mr. Godfrey said that the general public wasn't ready for Ron Paul's support for legalizing heroin, but he said more voters may be open to Rand Paul's push to reduce or eliminate minimum-mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
"Ron got a lot of us sort of 'crazies' to get mobilized, but Rand does a much better job of conveying the [liberty] message to the broader electorate and that is why I think he has a much better chance of actually winning the presidency in the 2016," Mr. Godfrey said.
Mr. Paul's political fortune is likely tied to his ability to strike a delicate balance between currying favor with the grass-roots troops who made the Ron Paul Revolution a force, while also pursuing his strategy of expanding the Republican coalition through his libertarian message.
He'll need to expand beyond his father's support if he wants to win the GOP nomination in 2016. The elder Mr. Paul, a congressman from Texas, didn't win the popular vote in any of the 2012 contests, though he did maximize delegates to the nominating convention through shrewd use of party rules.
But his son is better-positioned already, with polls showing him the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two stops on the presidential nomination calendar.
Lois Kaneshiki, chairwoman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Pennsylvania, said Rand Paul could build upon the success of his father, who, she said, struggled to shed the "reputation for being a little bit on the fringe."
"Rand has a talent and a gift for being able to share issues that concern us," Ms. Kaneshiki said. "I see him bringing in a whole new audience to the Republican Party and issues that are extremely important that are a natural fit for our party."
Speaking at the LPAC meeting in Chantilly, the younger Mr. Paul credited the liberty movement with blocking the Obama administration from launching a military strike against Syria, slowing the growth of future government spending and trying to defund the National Security Agency's spying programs. He said Republicans can and should attract more young and black voters by touting the right to privacy, reducing mandatory minimum sentences and pushing back against indefinite detention.
"I think there are all kinds of ways that we can expand and grow the party and I think of instead of the libertarian aspect of the Republican Party being a detriment, I actually think it has come full circle and it really is the way the Republican Party will grow," Mr. Paul said.
LPAC marked the first time the Paul father-son duo appeared on stage together in months.
Before the conference, Rand Paul and his office bristled at questions about their most recent public appearance together.
"I think that I have been here long enough that I should be judged for who I am and not necessarily a comparison," Mr. Paul told The Washington Times over the summer. "How many times did George W. Bush get asked about his father? I think if anything, I am asked more about it than he ever was."
Vendors at LPAC sold Rand Paul 2016 gear amid conversations about the government's possible involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and alongside merchants peddling T-shirts casting NSA leaker Edward Snowden as a "Hero" and tank tops that read "I Don't Dial 911" above the image of a handgun.
"Someone said that Ron Paul speaks to people who see the light and Rand Paul speaks to people who are still in the dark," said Drew Forbes, a 31-year-old from Houston. "I think that Rand Paul has had better success with a mainstream audience whereas Ron Paul has more success with the idealist, with the pure strict libertarian."
Mr. Forbes said that Mr. Paul's job could get easier if voters think that Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination for president.
"I think there are plenty of people who will say, 'Well he is not a purist. He does not say everything I want him to say.' But at the end of the day are you going to vote for him or vote for Hillary?" he said.
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