MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tomorrow, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will appear somewhere where Republicans don't often make high-profile speeches: Howard University, one of the country's most prominent historically black schools. Paul is trying to make the GOP appear more inclusive and one answer, in his view, is Libertarianism.
As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, party leaders are starting to think Paul might be onto something.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When Rand Paul's father, Congressman Ron Paul, ran for president in 2007, the Republican establishment treated him a bit like the wacky uncle in the family. In the middle of two expensive wars, Paul's Libertarian ideas of small government and personal freedom didn't really align with party leaders.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: You see, 'cause they don't stand for these ideals any more.
SHAPIRO: This was Paul on NBC's "Meet the Press."
PAUL: No, I represent the Republican ideals, I think, much more so than the individuals running for the party right now.
SHAPIRO: Over the next several years, Americans grew tired of war. The economy tanked. The debt grew. President Obama's stimulus and health care programs ballooned the size of government. All of that opened Americans up to more Libertarian ideas.
In 2010, Ron Paul's son, Rand, won election to the Senate as a Republican on what he called a Tea Party tidal wave.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: We've come to take our government back.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: Last month, Paul shook the Republican establishment with a 13-hour filibuster over drones. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, which often clashes with Libertarians, tweeted, Stand with Rand. Lee Edwards of Heritage says Libertarianism is definitely having its moment.
LEE EDWARDS: I think you'd have to go back to Barry Goldwater, when he ran for president in 1964, to get somebody who advanced as many Libertarian ideas and policies as are being talked about today.
SHAPIRO: Today, majorities of Americans want to lower the debt, allow gay marriage, and legalize marijuana. Those are not all traditional Republican values but they are all Libertarian ones.
Last month, the GOP released a scathing review of what went wrong for the party in the 2012 election. One conclusion was that Republicans need to expand the tent on social issues.
David Boaz is executive vice president of the CATO Institute, a Libertarian think tank.
DAVID BOAZ: They are saying we're losing young voters, we're losing a lot of independents, we're losing suburban women. And a lot of it is because, as the report said, we are perceived as out of touch and narrow-minded.
SHAPIRO: He says the solution is something he's been preaching for years.
BOAZ: Republicans need to reiterate that they are a small government conservative party committed to economic growth and opportunity, with room for people who take different views on social issues. And, obviously in this case, different views mean more Libertarian views.
SHAPIRO: This seems like a threat to the ideals that social conservatives hold dear. They've been an important part of the Republican base for a long time and they are extremely dubious of this new approach.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
RICHARD LAND: To say that you want to jettison social conservatives in order to get an emerging demographic of young people is like saying, well, we lost a close game, so let's bench our quarterback, who was the most valuable player and gained the most yards.
SHAPIRO: Besides, Land believes young people won't hold their Libertarian views for long.
LAND: I would say that these young voters' frontal lobes aren't fully developed yet. That's why they have their parents and that's why they have their elders.
SHAPIRO: But these ideas are not just appealing to young people, says Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.
MICHAEL DIMOCK: With the economy and tough times, people are blaming the government for a lot of the problems we face. And they're frustrated with the government, and you do see that sentiment coming across a range of different policy issues.
SHAPIRO: This is not just a straightforward Libertarian boom, though. Dimock says the drug legalization crowd is not the same as the low-tax crowd. And the Tea Partiers who like low taxes tend not to support gay marriage. In other words, while Libertarian ideas are popular, Dimock says full-on Libertarians are still rare.
DIMOCK: It's still difficult to find many Americans who are consistently Libertarian across a wide range of issues - foreign policy, social policy, and economic policy all at once.
SHAPIRO: Still, Democratic strategist Tad Devine thinks Republicans have an opening here that could pose a threat to Democrats.
TAD DEVINE: These concerns are actually - they have the potential of attracting voters. You know, so that people could coalesce behind these concerns, vote for candidates who support an agenda, and this Libertarian movement is becoming a place where a lot of these ideas are finding expression.
SHAPIRO: But so far, it's an agenda that neither party is ready to embrace in its entirety.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.