The libertarian faithful – anti-tax activists and war protesters, John Birch Society members and a smattering of "truthers" who suspect the government’s hand in the 2001 terrorist attacks – gathered last September, eager to see the rising star of their movement.
With top billing on the opening night of the Liberty Political Action Conference, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told the audience at an airport Marriott in Virginia that a viable Republican Party must reach out to young people and minorities.
But not long after the applause died down, Paul was out the door. He skipped an address by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, as well as closing remarks by his own former Senate aide, an ex-radio host who had once celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and extolled white pride.
The senator was off to an exclusive resort on Mackinac Island, Mich., where he again talked about the future of the party. But this time he was in the company of Karl Rove and other power brokers, and his audience was Republican stalwarts who were sizing up possible presidential candidates.
As Rand Paul tries to broaden his appeal, he is also trying to take libertarianism, an ideology long on the fringes of American politics, into the mainstream. Midway through his freshman term, he has become a prominent voice in Washington’s biggest debates – on government surveillance, spending and Middle East policy.
In the months since he commanded national attention and bipartisan praise for his 13-hour filibuster against the Obama administration’s drone program, Rand Paul has impressed Republican leaders with his staying power, in part because of the stumbles of potential rivals and despite some of his own.
"Sen. Paul is a credible national candidate," said Mitt Romney, who ran as the consummate insider in 2012. "He has tapped into the growing sentiment that government has become too large and too intrusive." In an email, Romney added that the votes and dollars Paul would attract from his father’s supporters could help make him "a serious contender for the Republican nomination."
But if Paul reaps the benefits of his father’s name and history, he also must contend with the burdens of that patrimony. And as he has become a politician in his own right and now tours the circuit of early primary states, Paul has been calibrating how fully he embraces some libertarian precepts.
"I want to be judged by who I am, not by a relationship," Paul, a self-described libertarian Republican, said in an interview last week. "I have wanted to develop my own way, and my own, I guess, connections to other intellectual movements myself when I came to Washington."
Coming of age in America’s first family of libertarianism – he calls his father, a three-time presidential aspirant, "my hero" – Paul was steeped in a narrow, rightward strain of the ideology, according to interviews, documents and a review of speeches, articles and books.
Some of its adherents have formulated provocative theories on race, class and American history, and routinely voice beliefs that go far beyond the anti-war, anti-big-government, pro-civil-liberties message of the broader movement that has attracted legions of college students, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Tea Party activists.
That worldview, often called "paleolibertarianism," emerges from the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama, started with money raised by the senior Paul. It is named for the Austrian imigri who became an intellectual godfather of modern libertarian economic thinking, devoted to an unrestricted free market.
Some scholars affiliated with the Mises Institute have combined dark biblical prophecy with apocalyptic warnings that the nation is plunging toward economic collapse and cultural ruin. Others have championed the Confederacy. One economist, while faulting slavery because it was involuntary, suggested in an interview that the daily life of the enslaved was "not so bad – you pick cotton and sing songs."
Rand Paul says he abhors racism, has never visited the institute, and should not have to answer for the more extreme views of all of those in the libertarian orbit.
"If you were to say to someone, ‘Well, you’re a conservative Republican or you are a Christian conservative Republican, does that mean that you think when the earthquake happened in Haiti that was God’s punishment for homosexuality?’ Well, no," he said in an earlier interview. "It loses its sense of proportion if you have to go through and defend every single person about whom someone says is associated with you."
Still, his 2011 book, "The Tea Party Goes to Washington," praises some institute scholars, recommending their work and the institute website.
And he has sometimes touched on themes far from the mainstream. He has cautioned in the past of a plan to create a North American Union with a single currency for the United States, Mexico and Canada, and a stealth U.N. campaign to confiscate civilian handguns. He has repeatedly referred to the "tyranny" of the federal government.
Since becoming a national figure, Rand Paul has generally clung to safer ground. His denunciations of government intrusion on Americans’ privacy have been joined by lawmakers in both parties and have resonated with the public – though no other member of Congress as yet has joined him in his planned class-action suit against the National Security Agency.
He has renounced many of the isolationist tenets central to libertarianism, backed away from his longstanding objections to parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and teamed with members of the Black Congressional Caucus in calling for easing of drug-sentencing laws. He recently unveiled a plan for investment in distressed inner cities.
Much of that is in keeping with the left-right alliance Paul promotes, an alternative to what he dismisses as a "mushy middle." Such partnerships, he says, "include people who firmly do believe in the same things, that happen to serve in different parties."
In recent months, potential rivals for leadership of the Republican Party have depicted him as an extremist. Before the recent investigations into political abuses by his administration, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said that Paul’s "strain of libertarianism" is "very dangerous." And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told donors in New York that in a national campaign Paul could not escape Ron Paul’s ideological history.
Paul is not the first political son encumbered by a father’s legacy, but his mantle is unusually heavy. He has been his father’s apprentice, aide, surrogate and, finally, successor. Side-by-side portraits of father and son adorn one wall in his Senate conference room.
"We both believe in limited government," Rand Paul said. "We believe in a strict, or originalist, interpretation of the Constitution. We both believe that foreign policy has been too overreaching."
Still, he has seen the consequences of Ron Paul’s unwavering approach. "Unlike his father, he’s not interested in educating," said John Samples, an analyst at the Cato Institute and knows both Pauls. "He’s interested in winning."
If so, some libertarians wonder, how faithful will Rand Paul remain to the movement that nurtured him?
Ronnie, his older brother, said, "My dad stuck with, pretty much, ‘If it ain’t in the Constitution – boom’; pretty hard core, and that gave him 10 percent of the country that would die for him, absolutely."
Rand, Ronnie Paul predicted, will cede ground where he must, but stay true to the grand cause. He "is willing to work with them a little bit on things that in his mind really aren’t important," Ronnie Paul said. "But there’s no question, he’s still trying to get to the same place."
In recent months, Paul has dined with Rove and the donors of the major Republican super PAC, American Crossroads. He also met with Rupert Murdoch, whose properties include Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, assailing him for defending Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents about the agency’s spying, said that he was unsuitable as commander in chief. "As president, Mr. Paul couldn’t behave like some ACLU legal gadfly," the editorial said.
Paul sometimes muses aloud about his prospects in 2016. "Imagine what a general election would be like it were myself and Hillary Clinton," he said in an interview. Asserting that the Democrat would be more hawkish than the Republican, he added, "You’d totally turn topsy-turvy the whole political spectrum."
Sam Tanenhaus And Jim Rutenberg, New York Times