WASHINGTON — Adding his voice to his party's recent quest to broaden its minority appeal, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential Republican presidential hopeful in 2016, told an audience at a historically black university Wednesday that his party "has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights."
"No Republican questions or disputes civil rights," Paul said at Howard University. "I have never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act. The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview."
After losing two consecutive presidential contests, and losing 93 percent of the black vote last fall to President Barack Obama in the process, the GOP has begun a campaign to appeal to blacks, Hispanics, gays and others not traditionally associated with the party.
For the party's political survival, many experts contend, the country's changing demographics demand it.
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Paul's visit to Howard follows Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus' recent "listening tour" appeal to black Americans.
Paul has looked more like a presidential candidate-in-waiting since his recent filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to become director of the CIA attracted national attention.
Still, his Howard speech didn't appear to have immediate positive results. After listening to Paul speak for an hour about how, historically, Democrats opposed integration and minority voting rights, while Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln and equality, Howard senior John Crawford said, "I appreciate the historical context, but how do you neglect to mention what your party has done for civil rights since 1960, and what it stands for today?"
Freshman Darnell Smith noted: "I came to learn today, but I'm leaving unimpressed."
That Paul made his case at Howard had an element of Daniel entering the lion's den and showed an intent to connect to black voters that seemed absent in last fall's presidential race. His talk also could be viewed as an attempt to erase comments he made in 2010, when he noted that while he opposes racism, and that racism was bad business, he wasn't comfortable with applying the 1964 Civil Rights Act to private business.
In 2010, after winning the Republican nomination to run for Senate, Paul said in an MSNBC interview that he was "absolutely in favor" of the parts of the law that bar discrimination by government entities. He also said that one part of the act "deals with private institutions, and had I been around, I would've tried to modify that."
Paul later clarified that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act if he were in the U.S. Senate at the time.
"Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here today," Paul told the Howard University audience.
Later, he added, "My hope is that you will hear me out, that you will see me for who I am, not the caricature sometimes presented by political opponents. I believe you'll discover that what motivates me more than any other issue is the defense of everyone's rights."
The first-term senator said a primary problem that Republicans have regarding their civil rights past is a failure to publicize their many successes.
"What gets lost is that the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights," Paul said. "Because Republicans believe that the federal government is limited in its function, some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth."