Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE (R-Ky.) got a rock star’s reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday, where he preached to his supporters about liberty and defended his positions on foreign policy.

Paul’s young supporters are out in force at the conference, handing out posters and wearing “I Stand With Rand” buttons and T-shirts. The Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord National Convention Center just across the border from the nation's capital overflowed for his speech, with young attendees packing the middle section like a mosh-pit and others pressed standing against the walls.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s time for a new president,” Paul declared, provoking chants of “President Paul!” from the conference goers.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and forgetfulness calls a nation to hesitate, waver and perhaps even to succumb,” he said. "When that time comes, those who love liberty must rise to the occasion. Will you lovers of liberty rise to the occasion?”

It was just one of a handful of lines that sent his supporters into a frenzy.

Paul was dressed down in blue jeans, which have become a staple of his public appearances, with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He gave his young supporters what they wanted — a libertarian message about small government and liberty that was heavy on flowery prose.

“Your rights are who you are and what you are,” he thundered. “Your rights are in your DNA and the government can quite frankly get over it.”

“When politicians accept censorship, when politicians accept imprisonment without trial, when politicians accept torture, even of the innocent, as necessary, then lovers of liberty must rise,” he said. “We must rise and stand with our forefathers who stared down the king. We must rise as free men and women and reclaim our birthright. We must protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Paul is a perennial CPAC favorite. He’s won the last two CPAC straw polls, taking 31 percent support in 2014 and beating the next finisher, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Texas), by 20 percentage points.

Paul’s father, former GOP presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), won the straw poll in 2011 ahead of his presidential run in 2012. Young voters have helped propel both men to national prominence and make up a core of the libertarian party for which the younger Paul now carries the torch.

The Kentucky senator will seek to marshal those resources as he gears up for a presidential run in 2016. 

However, the biggest question hanging over Paul’s potential campaign is whether his libertarian-leaning message and anti-interventionist foreign policy will sell in the primaries at a time when the U.S. faces new terror threats from the Middle East and the GOP has returned to its hawkish roots.

Foreign policy has been a dominant theme at CPAC, with many of the potential presidential candidates arguing that the U.S. must assert its force abroad. A slew of potential presidential candidates demanded a more hawkish global approach at the conservative gathering.

On Friday, Paul took those criticisms head on and highlighted areas where he says he’s been proven right.

“In the Middle East, a dangerous and barbaric cult has arisen … ISIS has grown in a safe haven crated by arming the rebels there,” Paul said. “When I voted against arming Islamic rebels in Syria, I warned … we might be forced to go back and fight against our own weapons. Within a year, that prediction came true. Without question, we must defend ourselves … but it troubles me we must now fight against our own weapons.”

Paul also sought to frame his foreign policy positions as Reagan-esque, saying he promotes “peace through strength” over foreign meddling.

“We need a foreign policy that encourages stability, not chaos,” Paul said. “At home, conservatives understand that the government is the problem, not the solution. But as conservatives, we should not succumb to the notion that a government that is inept at home will somehow become successful abroad, that the government that can’t deliver the mail at home will somehow be able to create nations abroad.”

“Without question, we must be strong, we must defend ourselves,” he continued. “I envision an America with an unparalleled national defense that is undefeatable and unencumbered by nation building … that promotes, as Reagan put it, peace through strength.”

Paul’s 2016 presidential ambitions hung over his speech. He’s hired a campaign manager-in-waiting, his digital strategy has come into view, and he has been test-driving a message centered on minority outreach and expanded economic opportunities for the working class through a less meddlesome government.

On Friday, he aimed the bulk of his attacks at the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE.

“I believe Hillary Clinton’s abdication of responsibility [on Benghazi] … should forever preclude her from higher office,” Paul said. “It’s time for Hillary Clinton to permanently retire.”