TAMPA — Rand Paul risks alienating his father's base as he tries to expand his own.
The Kentucky senator, who speaks at the Republican convention tonight, has a younger face and a softer edge, but his name does not guarantee the loyalty of Ron Paul's most passionate supporters.
With buzz around a potential run for president in 2016, Ron Paul's son plans to make the case to delegates that it is better for the movement to work with the GOP establishment rather than from the rebellious fringe. But convincing a libertarian movement that puts a premium on purity to play in the big tent of a major party is a big task.
Among some supporters of the elder Paul, there are doubts about whether Rand Paul is up to the task of carrying his father's torch.
Many Ron Paul supporters are still upset that Rand endorsed Mitt Romney in June during a Fox News appearance while his father was still technically a candidate. In fact, Ron Paul is being denied a speaking slot this week because he refuses to endorse or release his delegates to Romney. During the primaries, Rand always said he planned to support whoever won the Republican nomination whenever asked if his father would consider a third-party candidacy.
That doesn't go over well with some of Ron Paul's most fervent supporters.
"I was kind of on thin ice with Rand, and then he went and endorsed Romney. And I said, 'Dude, that's it! We're done now,' " said Nick Tanzillo, 27, who flew here from Boston for a Paul rally on Sunday. "He didn't need to do it when he did. It really cracked the liberty movement. You've got the hard core Ron supporters saying, 'What are you doing to us?' "
Ron Paul, 77, is retiring after 24 years in the House. Rand Paul, 49, did something his father never had in 2010 when he won statewide office after upsetting a GOP establishment favorite in the Republican primary. He has begun raising his national profile and has become increasingly close with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and now plans to deliver a prime-time address at the national convention.
In separate interviews with POLITICO, both father and son played down their divergent tactics at the convention here.
Asked whether his son can carry his torch, the elder Paul said: "Time will tell. Nobody has a torch that they give to somebody else. I don't have a torch. Everybody has to own their own way. He'll do well."
Rand Paul pushed back at suggestions that he may be alienating some of his father's supporters. And he argued that the GOP platform is a "very libertarian, conservative document."
"One out of 1,000 will be unhappy," Rand Paul said of his father's supporters. "But the vast majority come up to me and are complimentary and are very supportive."
There's a great deal of hostility among longtime Ron Paul supporters at the convention about the way the Romney campaign has treated them in the past few days. After they received several concessions in the party platform, the RNC's credentials committee voted to exclude pro-Paul Maine delegates, and then Romney's top lawyer rammed through a series of rule changes designed to hinder outsider candidates.
Given the factions at the RNC, some Romney allies see Rand Paul's role as critical in the final days of the convention.
"I'm glad that he's doing what he can to help bring all of the forces together that need to change the current administration," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a top Romney ally. "And I think you have to factor Rand Paul into the future of not only Kentucky politics, but the future of national Republican politics."
But there are stylistic differences — the younger Paul has demonstrated he can talk about foreign policy in more mainstream terms, while Ron Paul has turned off many in the party.
"Rand symbolizes the incorporation of Ron Paul's liberty message into the mainstream GOP," said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, a key early-state Paul backer. "Dr. Paul is more like John the Baptist, sort of the guy wandering in the wilderness for years speaking truth but eating locusts and honey. Enough people follow … his message starts to spread. Rand Paul is the logical progression."
The flipside to this is that many Ron Paul supporters like him because of his uncompromising foreign policy. The older Paul said in his speech at the Sunday rally that many have told him he would have done better if only he allowed for a more interventionist foreign policy.
"And of course if I didn't have the same policy that I do have," he said, "I don't believe we would be here tonight."
The best thing Rand Paul has going for him is that he's the most obvious successor to his father in presidential-level politics. Most longtime Paul supporters plainly aren't excited about Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who dropped out of the Republican primaries to run as the Libertarian Party's candidate.