Sen. Rand Paul took a risk Thursday. Speaking to an audience of religious conservatives in the wake of a racially charged shooting in South Carolina, Paul delicately suggested that Republicans might want to start focusing on other parts of the Bill of Rights than the Second Amendment.
"Everybody is for the Second Amendment. All 55 candidates running for president are for the Second Amendment—on our side," Paul told the crowd. "But the thing is that a lot of young people, that might not be their primary issue."
Leaving any room for the perception of moving past guns—an issue critically important to the Republican base—is a gamble in the crowded 2016 GOP primary. But it's one very much in keeping with the Kentucky senator's campaign of almost-gonzo optimism, and it's the type of decision backed by Paul's personal conviction that his libertarian philosophy can unite traditional Republican voters with more independent-minded young people and minorities.
Speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit, Paul's remarks also mentioned the Wednesday night shooting that killed nine black church congregants in Charleston, South Carolina.
"We had the shooting this morning in South Carolina. What kind of person goes in a church and shoots nine people? There's a sickness in our country. There's something terribly wrong, but it isn't going to be fixed by your government. It's people straying away, it's people not understanding where salvation comes from. And I think that if we understand that, we'll understand and have better expectations of what we get from our government."
Paul's discussion of the Second Amendment was only a snippet of a longer and broader speech, much of which focused on religious liberty and, in particular, Paul's efforts to defend Christians overseas. He touted an amendment in which he proposed to cut off foreign aid to countries that persecute Christians, and said it was a sign of Washington's disconnect from the country that it was voted down in committee by a wide margin.
The speech was sandwiched in between those of his Senate colleagues and fellow presidential contenders, Marco Rubio (who did not mention the Charleston shooting in his speech) and Ted Cruz (who spoke of the event and began his remarks with a moment of silence). As part of his quest to distinguish himself from his GOP competitors while not alienating base voters, Paul emphasized his record of visiting black communities in Washington, Baltimore, and Chicago.
Polling suggests Paul's gauge of young people's enthusiasm about guns is accurate. A 2013 Pew poll found that just 16 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own a gun, compared to 24 percent of the total population. A 2013 Harvard University study found that young people are split in their opinion about the National Rifle Association.
But young people don't tend to vote in the Republican presidential primaries. At one point in the 2012 election, CBS found that white evangelicals made up half of Republican primary and caucus voters.
And therein lies Paul's big challenge: He's trying to win the White House by reaching well past the Republican base, but if he can't win over enough of the party's base in the primary, his general election aspirations will be over long before they ever begin.
This article was changed to clarify Paul's remarks.