BOSTON (AP) — Fighting to move beyond his father's shadow, Sen. Rand Paul is crafting new alliances with the Republican Party establishment during a Northeast tour that began Friday in Boston.
The 51-year-old Kentucky Republican, son of libertarian hero and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, headlined an afternoon luncheon hosted by top lieutenants of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney — a private meeting that comes as Paul weighs a 2016 presidential bid of his own. To succeed in a national campaign, however, those close to Paul acknowledge that he must broaden his appeal beyond the tea party and libertarian-minded activists who rallied behind his father's long-shot presidential runs.
Paul offered a unique blend of what he called "libertarian-ish" politics while addressing Harvard University's Institute of Politics Friday afternoon.
"The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die," Paul declared.
He railed against perceived civil liberties abuses in the Obama administration, while suggesting his party should focus less attention on social issues. He also said the GOP should abandon calls to deport millions of immigrants and offered that armed school officials might help prevent further mass shootings.
But more than what he said publicly, Paul's private actions on Friday marked a new step in his push to strengthen his political standing.
The freshman senator attended the luncheon at the private-equity firm Solamere Capital, a Boston-area company led by Romney's his former national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick, and Romney's oldest son, Tagg. Romney himself serves as a senior adviser to the firm and has an office there, although he did not attend the gathering.
Zwick arranged a private audience of just a dozen key members of Romney's inner circle, including senior advisers Beth Myers, Bob White and Ron Kaufman.
"This was meant to be a real discussion with people that I view can be very helpful," Zwick told The Associated Press, adding that Paul "was very well received" during an hour-and-a-half discussion about policy and politics over salad and fresh fruit.
"He always leaves people feeling more positive about him than they did going in," Kaufman said of Paul after the meeting.
Aides to Paul, Romney and officials at the Republican National Committee said Paul is building on consistent outreach to GOP establishment figures that already distinguishes his record from his father's, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"Ron's retired. Ron's political career was obviously a help to Rand, but he's finished," said Doug Stafford, Rand Paul's former chief of staff who now leads his political action committee. "This is about Rand."
Paul's father never endorsed Romney in 2012, but Paul endorsed the former Massachusetts governor soon after he became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Over the last year, Paul has stood alongside Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in places like New Hampshire and Michigan as the national party works to mend internal divisions and strengthen its appeal among young people and minorities. Paul has helped fellow Republicans across the political spectrum raise money, as he is expected to do Saturday for Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is widely considered a moderate.
"There's no question that he has outreach to do, but I think people realize he has a legitimate chance of doing very well in the (presidential) nomination process," said former Romney aide Ryan Williams. "His challenge is to prove that if he were our nominee he would be a viable candidate in a national race. Certainly, his father was never viewed that way."
As he courts the establishment, Paul is starting to build a team on the ground in virtually every state — a network drawn largely from the activists that backed his father. While his father was widely dismissed by the Republican establishment as a fringe candidate in 2012, he was a significant factor in several nominating contests, earning more than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Paul camp recognizes that Romney's team could help him build on his father's numbers.
"I don't know how many will be supportive, but the door is open," Stafford said of Romney's aides and donors. "They want to hear from him."
Meanwhile, Paul faces challenges as he works to introduce himself to a new cross-section of the electorate.
At first one of the most high-profile people supporting Cliven Bundy, Paul distanced himself this week from the Nevada rancher and his controversial comments about African-Americans. Bundy has been celebrated by conservatives for fighting off the federal government's push to collect grazing fees — most recently with the help of an armed militia.
Paul released a statement this week saying that Bundy's "remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him."
Paul continues his Northeastern outreach on Saturday in Maine, where he will address party activists at the state GOP convention. He also plans to appear next month at the RNC's spring meeting in Memphis.
"He's already reached out beyond the folks that his dad has," Stafford said. "That's what he's been trying to do — both broaden his appeal and broaden the appeal of the party ... Whoever the nominee is in 2016 is going to have to be someone who can do that."
POLL: Highly Dissatisfied Obamacare Enrollees Find Out Health Insurance Isn't Healthcare | Katie Pavlich