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It is official - Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will run for president. He made the announcement on his website this morning. Like Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, he's following a family tradition. His father, Ron Paul, ran for the Republican nomination two times as the standard bearer for the libertarian wing of the party. This year, Rand Paul has been updating his father's brand of libertarianism to better fit the GOP mainstream. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on the path Paul hopes will lead him to the nomination.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Rand Paul previewed his campaign in a web video with a heavy metal soundtrack, proclaiming that he is a different kind of Republican.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
SENATOR RAND PAUL: It's time for a new way, a new set of ideas, a new leader.
LIASSON: In a Republican field without a clear frontrunner, says political analyst Stu Rothenberg, Paul is a serious contender with a lot of assets.
STU ROTHENBERG: He has terrific fundraising potential. He has an army of supporters who will run into a burning building to vote for him.
LIASSON: Those are mostly young libertarian men who helped Ron Paul finish right behind the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire three years ago. Rand Paul wants to build on his father's support, so he's been reaching out to minority voters with an emphasis on criminal justice reform and to young audiences like this one in New Hampshire last year with an appeal based on privacy and civil liberties.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL: How many people here have a cell phone? Anybody have a cell phone? How many people think that it's none of the government's damn business what you do on your cell phone?
DANTE SCALA: If I had to fill a large lecture room at my campus, I would bet a lot that Rand Paul could fill that room for me with young, libertarian-minded conservatives. Of that I have little doubt.
LIASSON: That's University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala. Rand Paul's slogan is defeat the Washington machine, unleash the American dream. That little rhyme invokes the crusading libertarian Paul, raging against the security state on the floor of the Senate in an old-fashioned 13-hour filibuster two years ago. But if the goal for Rand Paul in 2016 is to emerge as the antiestablishment alternative to, say, Jeb Bush, Scala says Paul has to become more than just the Libertarian candidate.
SCALA: He has to find a way to be at least somewhat more appealing to the mainstream of New Hampshire Republicans while keeping his appeal to his core vote, which I would describe right now at least as people who voted for his dad three years ago. That's the trick for Rand Paul.
LIASSON: Rand Paul agrees, and he's been making changes in order to mesh more comfortably with Republican orthodoxy. He's emphasized his agreement with evangelical Christians on gay marriage, telling a group of pastors last month that the First Amendment says keep government out of religion, not religion out of government. And in a move that shows Paul understands the GOP has returned to its hawkish roots since of the rise of ISIS, he has changed his tune on defense spending, proposing $190 billion more for the Pentagon. Those moves towards the mainstream may lose Paul some diehard libertarians, but, says David Boaz of the Cato Institute, most libertarians are thrilled.
DAVID BOAZ: I think Rand Paul is the most libertarian major presidential candidate that I can remember seeing. So it tells you that there is a constituency that wants this more libertarian approach.
LIASSON: Boaz, whose new book is called "The Libertarian Mind," sees Paul's adjustments as necessary and practical.
BOAZ: Rand Paul is trying to find a balance that reflects his own views and appeals to a plurality or eventually even a majority of the Republican Party, to the extent that there is that constituency skeptical of foreign intervention, skeptical of the surveillance state. He has that market in the Republican Party all to himself. Is it a big enough market? Well, that's what he's about to find out.
LIASSON: Stu Rothenberg wonders if the path Paul is on will advance his own presidential ambitions or lay the groundwork for a sea change inside the GOP.
ROTHENBERG: He may be starting a process that, down the road, will change the Republican Party, will start to bring in some new kind of faces. And I wouldn't be surprised if in six or 10 years, this is a more Libertarian party.
LIASSON: But in time for Paul to win the nomination next year - Rothenberg, like most analysts, is skeptical. Still, because Paul is the kind of candidate who can raise lots of small contributions - his father Ron invented the online moneybomb back in 2008 - he can probably stay in the race long enough to find out.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Pres Rand Paul, Pres Rand Paul, Pres Rand Paul, Pres Rand Paul, Pres Rand Paul.
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.