Standing in the wings of the auditorium at Howard University’s business school were three or four young volunteers who didn’t look like students. Each wore a small red sticker on his chest, which read, “Stand with Rand.” As Howard students filed into the room, the volunteers would gently push forward their clipboards, asking if the students would sign their names to “Stand with Rand.” By the time Rand Paul had entered to give his speech Wednesday morning, the volunteers had a few, but not many, signatures.

Paul isn’t used to getting cool receptions, particularly not at college campuses, where he and his libertarian father Ron Paul often have a small but devoted following. There was no army of fans at Howard, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., and the place where Paul spoke Wednesday morning in an effort to reach out to African Americans. From the start, the senator tried to break the ice.

“Some people have asked me, ‘Are you nervous about speaking at Howard? You know, they say some of the students there, they may be Democrats,’” Paul said with a grin. Some laughed. Others didn’t. It was a little tense.

The tension rose as Paul touched briefly on his 2010 interview with Rachel Maddow in which he raised questions about the propriety Title II of the Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination at commercial establishments like hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters.

“Here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act,” Paul said to the Howard crowd. “It didn’t always go so well for me.” This time, no one laughed.

Over the next few minutes, Paul attempted to offer an alternative history of the political parties on issues of race. “The story of emancipation, of voting rights, and of citizenship, from Frederick Douglas until the modern era is really, in fact, a history of the Republican party,” he said. Democrats, on the other hand, were actively against liberty and voting rights for blacks in the decades following the Civil War.

“How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, how did that party become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote?” Paul asked. “How did the Republican party, the party of the great emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?”

Before he had the chance to offer an answer, two male students stood up methodically, unfurling a giant banner that read in red, black ,and green letters, “Howard University Doesn’t Support White Supremacy.” The duo was pushed out by campus security while the audience applauding approvingly. One man sitting next to me rolled his eyes at the disruption. “That’s so unnecessary,” he said.

Still, the tension remained as Paul continued, explaining that in the Great Depression, Democrats began offering African American voters more than political emancipation. The New Deal was, for blacks as well as poor whites, a chance for “economic emancipation.”

“The Democrats promised equalizing outcome,” Paul said. “Everybody will get something through unlimited federal assistance. But Republicans offered something that seemed to be less tangible: the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets. Now, Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to considering the option. Democrats still offer unlimited federal assistance and Republicans still offer free markets, low taxes, less regulation, but because we truly believe it will create millions of jobs for everyone. The Democrat promise is tangible. It puts food on the tables but too often, I think, doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success.”

It would be a tough sell for any Republican, even minority senators like Marco Rubio or Tim Scott, for this audience. Like most college campuses, Howard is a hotbed of youthful left-wing idealism. As one student said during the Q&A after the speech, while Paul may want a government that leaves its citizens alone, “I don’t want that.”

Paul’s more civil libertarian positions got more support than his economic ones. He received raucous applause when he reiterated his opposition to America fighting “unnecessary” wars and to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug criminals. “We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake,” he said. Paul even surprised a few students with a story about “two young men” who got second chances.

“Both of them made mistakes. Both of them were said to have used illegal drugs. One of them was white, from a privileged background. He had important friends, an important father, and an important grandfather,” Paul said. “His family could buy justice if he needed it. The other man also used illegal drugs, but he was of mixed race and from a single-parent household with little money. He didn’t have important friends or a wealthy father. Now you may think I’m going to tell you a story about racism in America, where the rich white kid gets off and the black kid goes to jail. It could be and often is. But that’s not this story. In this story, both young men were extraordinarily lucky. Both young men were not caught using illegal drugs, and they weren’t in prison. Instead they went on to become presidents of the United States.”

The students let out a few shocked gasps. “Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky,” Paul concluded. The audience erupted in laughter. They hadn’t expected it.

For a while, it seemed like Paul had won over his audience—or at least had grabbed their interest. Perhaps these Howard University students weren’t going to leave the auditorium and sign up to stand with Rand. They’d probably continue to vote Democratic. But maybe this goofy Republican doctor talking about liberty and economic freedom and individualism had planted a seed.

It didn’t last long. Asked a tough question about how the Republican party of Lincoln’s era looks nothing like the party of Nixon and Reagan, Paul decided to quote the first black senator ever elected, a Republican from Massachusetts. The problem is he couldn’t remember his name. The students erupted, yelling out, “Edward Brooke! Edward Brooke!” Brooke had graduated from Howard, after all.

Paul nodded, thanking the crowd for jogging his memory. “Edwin Brooks, yeah,” he said.

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