By Sarah McBride
AUSTIN, Tx. (Reuters) - As his likely rivals spent the weekend shaking hands in New Hampshire, potential Republican candidate Rand Paul flew to Texas to court the software developers and entrepreneurs who are likely to play a central role in the 2016 election.
The libertarian-leaning Kentucky Senator tweeted, Snapchatted and Instagrammed his way through the South by Southwest Interactive conference as he sought to make inroads among an independent-minded crowd that could serve as an important source of money, votes and programming talent for his expected presidential bid.
"If you want talent you gotta go where the talent is," he said on Monday.
It was the first time a potential candidate has participated in the conference, according to organizers. Paul spent much of the weekend talking about the shared DNA of the tech community and the libertarian movement, but he spent little time talking about net neutrality, the thorny question of how to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated equally.
While many tech companies back recently approved rules that broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast should be regulated like utilities, Paul and other Republicans have argued that the new regulations will choke off innovation.
It's an argument he has made in great detail in other forums. In front of this crowd, he framed the debate in the broadest terms possible.
"I don't want the government to screw up one of the greatest technologies we've had," he told the conference on Sunday, drawing applause.
The applause that line drew came as a surprise for tech consultant Warren Hanes, who said he thought many at the conference weren't aware of his opposition to the new rules.
"It’s possible there are people who simply responded emotionally to the issue of less regulation," he said.
TECHNOLOGY ARMS RACE
Paul's decision to spend the weekend in Texas, rather than early-voting states like Iowa or New Hampshire, highlight the crucial role the technology industry is likely to play in 2016 - both as a source of money and talent.
While former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has locked down many big donors on Wall Street and Florida Senator Marco Rubio has made inroads with the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, Paul has worked hard to cultivate ties in Silicon Valley, where many entrepreneurs share his frustration with government eavesdropping.
Campaigns have also engaged in a technology arms race since 2004 to find ever more sophisticated ways to target voters. Planting the flag at South by Southwest could help Paul build a cutting-edge operation.
On Monday, he opened an office for his political-action committee at the Capital Factory, a shared-office space for technology startups in a downtown Austin high-rise.
The tech industry gave twice as much money to Democratic President Barack Obama than his Republican rival Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Paul's conservative stances on social issues like gay marriage and abortion could prove troubling for many in the industry, where liberal social views are widespread. Mozilla Corp. CEO Brendan Eich, for example, resigned under pressure in 2014 after board members objected to his support for a previous campaign against gay marriage.
Paul's views on social issues are "a real problem for people like me," said Jeff Boedeker, a producer at a multimedia company. Still, he says he believes the final say on abortion and same sex marriage will go to the courts, not the president, making support of Paul more palatable.
(Writing by Andy Sullivan and Sarah McBride, editing by Ross Colvin)