DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rand Paul opened his presidential exploration tour Friday with a splashy set of speaking engagements in Iowa designed to broaden his tea party brand into something more mainstream and, perhaps, viable.
The Kentucky senator, the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was the headliner at a marquee Republican dinner and was expected to meet with key voting groups in eastern Iowa. In coming weeks, Paul will reintroduce himself in early voting New Hampshire and South Carolina, using his father's base of libertarian supporters as a starting point in hopes of bridging the wide divide between the GOP and traditionally Democratic voters.
"I am traveling to a lot of states that just coincidentally have early primaries," Paul said during a Thursday interview with Radio Iowa. "But part of that is to grow the Republican Party as well."
Paul wasn't the only 2016 GOP hopeful introducing himself in early voting states only a few months into President Barack Obama's second term. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was scheduled to headline a Republican state Senate fundraiser in New Hampshire Friday.
All of the prospective GOP candidates face the challenge of uniting a party without a definitive leader after election losses last year. Key voting blocs_women, blacks and Hispanics— voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Republicans lost seats in the GOP-controlled House, failed to capitalize on a once-promising shot at winning the Senate majority and the party's presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, failed to unseat Obama.
With a tiny staff, Paul began his outreach to traditionally Democratic voters with a speech at Howard University, and by saying he'd "find a place" for people in this country illegally who want to live and work here. And he's even risked alienating some in the GOP by opposing any federal ban on gay marriage.
Now he's reaching out to Republicans in early voting states to make the case that he can unite the party and broaden its appeal. Paul, 50, starts with a key advantage: the base of more than a million supporters of his father, a libertarian Republican who sought the presidency in 1988, 2008 and 2012.
On Friday, the senator was speaking at the Iowa state party's annual Lincoln Day dinner in Cedar Rapids. He was to meet with a Republican women's group in the afternoon and speak at a county GOP breakfast Saturday.
After Iowa, Paul is slated to deliver the keynote address at a party banquet in New Hampshire. He'll cap May's busy travel schedule with a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on May 31.
Then it's back to Iowa next month to court influential evangelical pastors. And on June 28, Paul attends a fundraiser for Republicans in South Carolina, another early primary state in presidential nominating campaigns.
Among the challenges Paul faces is explaining his opposition to a federal gay marriage ban to influential cultural conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina. Paul says he would fight gay marriage at the state level, an explanation that suffices for Tamara Scott, among Iowa's leading Christian conservatives.
"He's trying to strategize where we can keep marriage as God designed," Scott said.
But some Iowa Republican activists are wary of Paul's views, many of which they see as in line with his father's libertarian ideals and at odds with GOP orthodoxy. Paul said last month Republicans "need to be the party that is reluctant to go to war," and the strong national defense he supports should be for "prevention of war," not for intervening in conflicts around the globe.
"He has a few ideas that maybe would be exactly mine. That would be national security," said Gwen Ecklund, a Republican county chairwoman in conservative western Iowa.
Ron Paul's outsider 2012 presidential candidacy stumbled when his GOP rivals pressed him on his opposition to using military force to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
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