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In less than four years in the Senate, Rand Paul of Kentucky has emerged as a prominent new face of the Republican Party and a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. But Rand Paul's libertarian philosophy sets him apart from the rest of the field. Still unclear is how GOP voters will respond to his views on foreign policy and his belief that the U.S. has been far too quick to exert its influence through military force. Today, Sen. Paul speaks to activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, known has CPAC. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It is one of those primary tenets of the Republican Party: a strong, robust, well-funded military and the willingness to deploy it are a critical part of national security. But Sen. Rand Paul has long felt it's time to reexamine that approach.
SEN. RAND PAUL: People sometimes ask me: What is my world view? My response is that, you know, even if you've crisscrossed the globe, even if you've been everywhere, I'm just not sure that the world doesn't change by the time you return to the same spot twice. I am a believer that foreign policy must be viewed by events as they present themselves, not as we wish them to be.
GONYEA: This is from a speech the senator gave earlier this year at the Center for the National Interest.
RAND PAUL: But I believe the answers to most problems that confront us around the world can and should be approached by engaging both friend and foe. You know, I'm not naive enough to say that dialogue's always going to work.
GONYEA: To hear a member of the Paul family challenge conventional GOP thinking on foreign policy is hardly new. His father, former Congressman Ron Paul, sought the Republican nomination in 2008, and again in 2012. This was from New Hampshire TV station WMUR during the last campaign. Ron Paul was asked about bringing U.S. troops home.
(SOUNDBITE OF WMUR BROADCAST)
RON PAUL: Bin Laden is dead. The al-Qaida - even our CIA says basically not in Afghanistan anymore. The most recent report from the CIA says that there is no evidence that the Iranians are building a nuclear bomb. So we don't need all of this. I think we should just come home.
GONYEA: That didn't play very well with Republican voters last time around. Now, Ron Paul's words are not those of his son Rand, who is much more nuanced. But Sen. Paul has inherited his father's following of libertarian Republicans and others, especially young people. Alexander McCobin, who heads a national group called Students for Liberty, explains why.
ALEXANDER MCCOBIN: This is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed. I honestly believe most young people are libertarian. They're socially tolerant. They're fiscally responsible, and they're, in general, non-interventionists on foreign policy.
GONYEA: But to get a sense of what Sen. Paul and those in the party who are pushing for a more non-interventionist future will encounter during the coming presidential campaign, take a listen to former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who spoke at CPAC yesterday.
JOHN BOLTON: Yet there are those, even within our movement, who say that America will be safe enough if we do little or nothing. Let's call this what it is: It is the resurgence of isolationism.
GONYEA: But Al Cross, a Kentucky political analyst, says Paul is tapping into a war weariness on the part of the public.
AL CROSS: I think he's trying to pull the establishment more in the direction of the voters, frankly. I think voters have become very suspect and skeptical of international involvements.
GONYEA: Cross says foreign policy will likely take an especially prominent place in the coming presidential race. But the challenge for Sen. Paul, he says, will be to go beyond the abstract.
CROSS: It's easy to enunciate general principles about vital interests and peripheral interests and how you treat people. But when you start applying theories to individual cases, then is when you start losing people because of the positions that you take.
GONYEA: It's also true that Rand Paul's view of America's role in the world has not yet received the kind of scrutiny that is sure to come if he continues to be a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Activists will certainly be listening very closely at CPAC this afternoon. Don Gonyea, NPR News.
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