U.S. Sen. Rand Paul returned this weekend to the state where he was raised eager to show he can occupy a unique space in the 2016 presidential field: The Republican who shows up in places — and in ways — that others won't.
In a string of appearances during South by Southwest, the Kentucky Republican sought to portray his Libertarian-tinged brand of conservatism as the antidote for a Republican Party that has lost its way with key voting blocs, namely the kinds that flock every year to Austin's famous festival. Anchored on a Monday morning opening of an Austin outpost for his likely 2016 presidential bid, Paul's trip to Texas came the same weekend many of his potential rivals were barnstorming more traditional campaign venues in New Hampshire.
The contrast, it seemed, was not lost on him.
"I think we've tried the standard candidates and we've lost," Paul said in an interview. "I think we have to have something different if we're going to have a large enough constituency to win in the big general elections in our country."
Paul, who is New Hampshire-bound next week, brought the message to three events Sunday in Austin that gave him the opportunity to appeal to a tech community that he said increasingly defies party labels — and could factor prominently into his presidential prospects. Asked by Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith how to measure the success of a tech-focused campaign, Paul rephrased the question to his own benefit.
"I would say at this point, 'What is victory for today?' Victory for today will be the candidate who will go to other places where other candidates have not been going, the candidate who will reach out to the tech community when no other candidate is around," said Paul, who on Friday visited historically black Bowie State University to discuss criminal justice reform.
Earlier Sunday afternoon, Paul stopped by the launch event for Liberty Action Texas, a group aiming to train young activists to work in Texas politics. He spoke exclusively about civil liberties and criminal justice, adding some local flair to his broader point by remarking even a "pot-smoking Austinite" could get behind his push for more freedom from government.
The youthful crowd did not appear to mind the singular focus.
"I pay pretty close attention, and I think the last person who made an attempt [to connect with young people] even was President Obama, but I don't see anybody — not just making the attempt, but actually talking to us about issues we actually care about and that we want to see changed," said Brian Thornton, a Texas legislative aide who supports Paul.
While Paul was emphatic Sunday about his central pitch for expanding the GOP's ranks, he seized ample opportunities to weigh in on the news of the day, including the running controversy over Hillary Clinton's exclusive use of a private email account while she was secretary of state. While repeatedly declining to say whether he uses private email — he insisted senators follow different rules — Paul ridiculed her explanation she did not want to carry two phones for her private and public accounts.
"I wish someone had explained to her you could put two email icons on her phone," he told Smith, suggesting there was a "certain arrogance and hypocrisy" to her excuse. "The Clintons kind of think the law's for you ordinary people."
In a comment on the horse race, Paul shrugged off a line that has become central to former Gov. Rick Perry's stump speech. Perry has warned early-state audiences against electing another "young, untested United States senator," an apparent jab at Paul or another Texas Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz.
"I think people who, you know, aren't succeeding very well right now are looking for a way in, and so I think people who are struggling will always look to try to, you know, bring somebody else down," Paul said in the interview.
Despite sounding every bit the presidential candidate, Paul cautioned that a 2016 run is "still a maybe" and he will decide within the "next few weeks," contingent upon his wife's blessing. After his interview with Smith left some with the impression that he already considered himself a presidential contender, the lawmaker, who's up for re-election in 2016, quickly clarified his current plans during a Twitter town hall with state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, a family friend expected to be one of his biggest boosters in Texas.
"Well, I am a candidate," Paul said, "for the U.S. Senate."