By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Rand Paul, a potential 2016 White House contender, on Friday accused President Barack Obama of restricting civil liberties and urged conservatives to "stand with me" in electing a president who would protect personal rights.
In a starkly libertarian speech, the senator from Kentucky condemned National Security Agency electronic surveillance, detention without trial programs and what he said were other encroachments on civil rights under the Obama administration.
But unlike other Republican speakers at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference, Paul said the issues were bigger than the two major political parties.
"You may think I'm talking about electing Republicans, I'm not. I'm talking about electing lovers of liberty," Paul told the cheering crowd. "It is decidedly not a time for the faint of heart. It is a time for boldness and action."
Paul, who has not said whether he will run in 2016, was one of four potential Republican presidential candidates to address the annual conference on Friday, along with Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Five other potential candidates spoke on Thursday as Republicans got a head start on the White House battle in front of thousands of conservative activists at a convention center in National Harbor, Maryland, a Washington suburb.
Paul drew a rousing response from the crowd for accusing Obama of running roughshod over personal liberty with programs like the NSA's electronic surveillance. He asked attendees to "imagine a time when the White House is once again occupied by a friend of liberty."
Perry, who is not running for re-election in Texas but is considering another White House bid, also drew a positive response. He touted his vision for smaller government and said his work in Texas, along with the records of other Republican governors, showed what innovative leadership could accomplish.
"We don't have to accept recent history. We just need to change the presidency," said Perry, whose ill-fated 2012 presidential bid crashed with a thud after a series of campaign-trail gaffes.
He said he and fellow Republican governors had pursued a limited government where "taxes are low, spending's under control, jobs are on the rise and opportunity is being sought far and wide."
Santorum brought up his failed 2012 presidential run, reminding the crowd that he finished second in the primary field to eventual winner Mitt Romney. By winning nominating contests in 11 states, Santorum said, he proved his appeal went beyond his cultural conservative values.
"Everybody in that race was a cultural conservative," he said.
Huckabee, who fell short in a 2008 presidential bid, condemned Obama's foreign policy leadership and accused the president of bungling relations with Israel and damaging America's standing around the globe.
"There is not one country anywhere with whom we have a better relationship than we did before," Huckabee said. "No one trusts us, no one listens to us, no one respects us, and no one fears us."
The three-day conference concludes on Saturday with the results of a presidential preference straw poll of convention-goers. Paul won the poll last year.
(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)