LOUISVILLE — As he took the stage just after noon Tuesday, the crowd began chanting: "President Paul! President Paul!"
Whether that chant proves prophetic remains to be seen, but for now it is official: Kentucky's junior U.S. senator, Rand Paul, is running for president.
"Today I announce, with God's help, with the help of liberty lovers everywhere, that I am putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States of America," Paul told an excited crowd in a ballroom at the Galt House hotel in downtown Louisville.
Tuesday's event was a highly produced affair, with multiple videos introducing Paul and his allies, and cranes moving through the crowd to capture footage of supporters eager to see Paul step onto the biggest stage in politics.
Paul, a Republican who moved to Bowling Green more than 20 years ago, begins his unlikely bid for the White House as the subject of intense criticism from Democrats on domestic policy and his own party on foreign policy, and his path to victory is as unclear as it is uncertain.
With the help of a teleprompter, Paul delighted the crowd as he rattled off his greatest hits: calling for term limits and a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution; cutting spending and reining in the nation's debt; and declaring that on "day one as president," he will end domestic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
"Washington is horribly broken," Paul said. "I fear it can't be fixed from within. We the people must rise up and demand action."
Throughout the event, it was clear that Paul was trying to cash in on whatever good will he has amassed with young and minority voters over the past two years.
Positioning himself as a "different kind of Republican," Paul went through a laundry list of the country's woes, telling a supportive and enthused crowd that "both parties and the entire political system are to blame."
Lauren Bosler, a student at the University of Kentucky, told the crowd that her generation "is not comprised of the traditional electorate, and Rand Paul is not the traditional politician."
'The start of a cause'
With prominent black leaders participating in the program, including former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts as the emcee, Paul continued his effort to portray himself as a Republican candidate eager to bring minorities into the GOP tent.
Watts opened the event by telling the cheering crowd: "This is the start of a cause."
"This message of liberty is for all Americans," Paul proclaimed, highlighting his efforts to broaden the GOP base.
But Democrats were eager Tuesday to push back on the notion that Paul is genuine in his desire to help minorities, recalling Paul's previous criticism of a portion of the Civil Rights Act and his suggestion that the free market should have been allowed to ferret out discriminatory businesses.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that Paul "says he wants to unleash the American Dream, but the only thing a Paul presidential candidacy unleashes is a massive lurch backwards to failed policies and narrow-minded extremism."
"He says he's something different, but when you take a look, he's the same as any other Republican presidential hopeful: good for the wealthiest few and bad for the middle class and taking positions that are way outside the mainstream on issue after issue," Schultz said.
But the Rev. Jerry Stephenson, a pastor at Louisville's Midwest Church of Christ, told the adoring crowd that "it doesn't matter what color you are, Rand Paul will be there."
Stepping to the stage after an introduction by his wife, Kelley, Paul harked back to his first speech as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate nearly five years ago, declaring: "I have a message, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words."
"We've come to take our country back," he said.
Remembering that first race, Paul reminded the crowd that he "wasn't supposed to win."
"No one thought I would," he said.
Paul's father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, himself a three-time presidential candidate with a history of making controversial remarks, was on the riser to the side of the stage. Paul, who is eager to broaden his father's libertarian base of support, didn't single out Ron Paul in his remarks, but he did ask for applause for his father and mother, telling the audience that he wouldn't be there without "the help of my parents."
'Peace, not war'
Paul, who said that a "love of liberty pulses in my veins," used some of his speech to try to push back on a gathering storm of hawkish Republicans who are determined to remind voters of the senator's past foreign policy statements and debatable support for Israel.
In one of few direct swipes at President Barack Obama, Paul told the crowd that "until we name the enemy, we can't win the war."
"The enemy is radical Islam. You can't get around it," he said. "And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend (America) from these haters of mankind."
And after more than a week of silence on the issue, Paul said he could not support a deal with Iran, as recently announced by Obama, unless it prevents Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, includes significant measures of verification and is presented to the U.S. Congress for approval.
Still, Paul said that negotiating with the nation's enemies is "not inherently bad," telling the crowd that the ultimate goal should always be "peace, not war."
The delicate balance that Paul is trying to strike between the more hawkish and the non-interventionist wings of the Republican Party was on full display as he promised the crowd that he "will never sacrifice your liberty for a false sense of security."
It was clear, however, well before Paul took the stage, that establishment and security-minded Republicans view Paul as a lightweight.
On Monday afternoon, Bloomberg News reported that the same group behind the 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attack on then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry were planning to spend $1 million in the first few days of Paul's campaign to remind voters of his past isolationist-leaning remarks and positions.
But inside the Galt House ballroom Tuesday, Kentuckians were ecstatic to see one of their own throw his hat in the ring. If Paul succeeds in the 2016 GOP primary, he would become the first Kentuckian to snag his party's nomination since John C. Breckenridge in 1860.
Calling the United States "a great country now adrift," Paul said that Tuesday "begins the journey to take America back."
He then delivered his official announcement, waving and giving thumbs-up to the crowd before walking off the side of the stage to a makeshift studio, where he did a lengthy interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity.
Paul is scheduled to continue his kickoff tour through the week with stops in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada. He is the second Republican candidate to enter the race, after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who jumped in two weeks ago.