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April 10th, 2013
06:00 PM ET

Paul treks to Howard University, hopes to rehabilitate GOP brand

Sen. Rand Paul walked into the auditorium at Howard University's business school with an olive branch.

"A Republican came to Howard," the Kentucky senator told the assembled audience of mostly African-American students. "But he came in peace."

Paul came to the historically black college just block away from Capitol Hill with a singular purpose: to begin to repair the relationship between the Republican Party and the black community. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost an astounding 93 percent of the black vote in the 2012 election. The potential 2016 candidate will need to do much better than that if he hopes to challenge whoever the Democrats nominate in 2016. Today's outreach speech marks the start of Paul's effort to distinguish himself from his fellow Republicans – and his own father's legacy.

"Republicans are deeply miscast as uncaring," Paul said. "I hope some of you will be more open to the Republican message that favors choice in education, less aggressive foreign policy, [and] more compassion."

The first elected Republican official to speak at Howard in decades, Paul drew applause for his positions against mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and against going to war. But most of his points proved less than persuasive. It was a tough crowd.

In addition to the racist newsletters that used to go out under the name of his father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, Sen. Paul got into hot water in 2010 for comments he made about the Civil Rights Act in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal.

Paul, a libertarian-leaning GOPer, told the paper, "It's a bad decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant, but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership."

Those remarks came up today.

"I've never questioned the Civil Rights Act and never came out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, nor have I introduced anything to alter the Civil Rights Act," Paul said, responding to a question on the issue.

That largely testy moment captured the tenor of the conversation between Paul and the Howard students: awkward. Paul took the university setting as an opportunity to try on his pedagogical tweed, instructing the crowd about things they already knew about history.

"Did you know that Republicans founded the NAACP?," Paul asked, the audience nonplussed.

But some in the crowd were impressed Paul simply showed up at the school.

"I think Rand Paul won everybody in the room over when he made the announcement he was speaking at Howard University," Julian Lewis said.

A former intern in the Obama White House, Lewis told CNN's Jake Tapper that, while students were appreciative of the Kentucky senator's visit, his support for the Republican Party's efforts to require picture ID's in order to vote means most in attendance found his message lacking.

"The right to vote is something you should not lie about," Lewis said.

Other students CNN spoke to echoed Lewis' sentiments.

"It was nice to hear," Maya Cade, a Howard University student said. "But it was just rhetoric."

"He wants the government to leave everybody alone. And I think, in a lot of ways, black voters don't identify with that," Michael Cruz, a senior at the school added.

CNN reached out to Senator Paul's office for comment after his speech, but aides said they were unable to fit it into his schedule.

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