CINCINNATI — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul isn't going person to person to try to sell his message of a more inclusive Republican Party to minority groups.
But with only about 60 people gathering to hear Paul's highly anticipated speech to the National Urban League on Friday morning, it sure felt that way.
Kentucky's junior senator, in preparation for what increasingly looks like a 2016 presidential run, continued to carry his message to unlikely places as an unlikely messenger, winning polite applause as he spoke against disparity in drug sentencing, his plan for "economic freedom zones" and his efforts to restore felons' voting rights while adding a new section about education.
The crowd was polite in its reception, but it was also very small. Paul attributed the low turnout to the early hour of the speech.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, welcomed Paul, telling the gathering that "no compromise, no solution, was ever reached in silence."
"And so today we talk, and we extend an open invitation and open hand," Morial said.
But Paul's uphill battle to win over a group that is traditionally skeptical, if not disdainful, of Republicans was reflected by the small showing in the cavernous hall of the Duke Energy Convention Center.
Several attendees at Paul's speech said they were encouraged by what Paul said in his remarks, but they said black voters are right to be skeptical, given the senator's controversial past when it comes to race relations.
Paul's questioning of the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act — a law he said Friday that he supports — his initial refusal to fire a staffer who hosted a radio show under the name "the Southern Avenger," and most recently his claim that he's doing more for civil rights than anyone in Congress, have all combined to divide black voters who have heard Paul's message.
Ronald Todd of Dayton said that he is a third-generation black Republican, and "it is a good, good, good thing" that Paul is going places and talking to constituencies that have felt ignored by the Republican Party.
"It's good that the party is reaching out now," Todd said. "And the senator made a statement today."
But Todd and others warned that the black population "has been burnt so bad for so many years" that Paul will have to prove his commitment through actions and not just words.
"Folks are going to be skeptical of things," Todd said. "My grandmother used to say, 'Don't show it; do it.' You have to earn that. Talk is cheap. Show us what you're saying is true."
Earlier this month, Paul's talk got him in hot water with Democrats and prominent black leaders when he claimed on two occasions to be doing more for civil rights than anybody in Congress.
When asked Friday whether that is hurting his efforts, Paul said, "I think that that's said in response to people who say I'm not doing enough."
"People need to just look at the record, and I'm happy to have people examine the record," he said as the press gaggle was immediately cut off.
Democrats are eager to have people examine that record as well. To welcome Paul to Ohio, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore and an official with the Democratic National Committee, penned a scathing op-ed piece that appeared in Friday's Cincinnati Enquirer, warning conference attendees: "Don't let him fool you."
"To see what he really believes on issues critical to the black community, look no further than the actions he's taken, the agenda he pushes and the offensive words he used for years before he decided to run for president," Rawlings-Blake wrote.
Stephanie Couser of Dallas, having listened to the speech with her husband, Nate, said there is "absolutely" skepticism among black voters that Paul is sincere in his efforts.
"A couple years ago, he came from a different standpoint," Couser said. "So I think people have a right to be skeptical."
But both Cousers said they liked what they heard from Paul, and Nate Couser said he does think Paul can win over black voters if he is consistent in his message and his efforts.
"I think anybody can change," Nate Couser said.