Paul electrifies conservative base

Greg Nash

A presidential-sounding Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wowed the the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday afternoon, proving he still captures the imagination of the party’s libertarian-leaning wing.

Speaking to a standing room-only crowd, Paul received the warmest reception of any headliner yet at the conference. As he ticked off what sounded like the possible outlines of a 2016 White House bid, nearly every other line of his address was punctuated by hearty applause and cheers, and at one point a cry of “Rand Paul run!” rose up in a corner of the crowd.

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While other addresses at this year’s CPAC focused on specific policies and red-meat issues like gay marriage and ObamaCare, Paul spoke in broad metaphorical terms of the need to “stand together for liberty.”

“It isn’t good enough to pick the lesser of two evils,” he said. “We must elect men of principle and conviction and action who will lead us back to greatness. There is a great and tumultuous battle underway, not for the future of the Republican Party, but for the future of the country.”

Paul framed the libertarian-ideas that have gained prominence within the party in recent years in historical terms, positioning his values as descending from the nation’s Founding Fathers. Paul name-dropped foundational American thinkers ranging from Daniel Webster to John Adams, James Madison to Montesquieu, but also quoted Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

One of his biggest applause lines seemed specifically geared toward the digital generation that has special resonance in the wake of the ongoing debate over privacy and NSA surveillance. 

“I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business,” he said, to extended cheers from the crowd.

It’s that ability -- to invigorate younger Republicans and frame wonky libertarian proposals in accessible terms -- that has made him one of the party's frontrunners for the 2016 presidential race. Paul took first place in last year's CPAC straw poll, and he came out of Friday's speech looking like the clear favorite again.

He avoided foreign policy, which has been a central focus for speakers at this year’s CPAC as the crisis in the Ukraine continues to make headlines. Instead, he touched on libertarian favorites, like the need to protect the Fourth Amendment and the NSA surveillance program, both topics that fired up the crowd.

Paul launched plenty of barbs at President Obama as well, framing him as a president counter to his values.

“I don’t question President Obama’s motives, but history will record his timid defense of liberty,” he said.

The Kentucky senator warned that Obama’s actions in office have set a “precedent … for lawlessness” that could become “nothing short of tyranny.”

“Our future hangs in the balance. We can debate a jobless recovery, an alarming debt, a bothersome and abusive regulatory state. But know this — you can’t have prosperity without freedom,” he said.

Paul drew heavy applause at the close of his speech as he cited his filibuster last year to protest the administration’s use of drone attacks — which, a year ago Thursday, catapulted him into national prominence — and his suit against Obama on the NSA surveillance program, which he said were examples of his own efforts to “take a stand.”

He also issued a rallying cry to the crowd: “The time for boldness and action, the time is now. Let us stand together for liberty."