SARASOTA -- Sounding more and more like a candidate for the Republican nomination for president next year, Kentucky's independent-minded, constitutionally conservative junior U.S. Senator, Rand Paul, jetted into Sarasota on Valentine's Day evening to accept an award as Republican of the Year from the Sarasota County Republican Party.
Paul spoke briefly Saturday to a rally of supporters and well-wishers at the Dolphin Aviation facility on the grounds of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, followed by a private fundraising dinner at the Bobby Jones Golf Complex in Sarasota.
Paul, the son of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, was elected to the Senate in 2010. He has been a vocal critic of centralized education, excessive government spending, taxation and surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency.
Rand opened by saying Republicans need to stand for what they believe if they want to recapture the White House in 2016.
"We need to be boldy for what we are for. What often passes for 'bold' by politicians in Washington is quite tepid. I'm not interested in 'revenue-neutral tax reform,' I'm interested in returning tax money to its rightful owners -- those of you here."
Paul said that Republicans can be the dominant party if they take an optimistic message to the people who need it most -- the poor and
the struggling working-class.
And that message, Paul said, should include jobs.
"I want everyone in this country to work, not as a punishment but as a reward. There's no reason that any able-bodied person cannot work, and if we spread our message of potential in every human being across the country, we'll be the dominant party."
Although Democrat Hillary Clinton has not formerly announced her intention to run for the presidency, Paul -- who also has not announced his candidacy -- took swipes at the former Secretary of State, claiming she mismanaged the State Department and the war in Libya in 2011, as well as the attack at an American consulate in Benghazi.
"We are less safe because of that war in Libya, because of her dereliction of duty. It was a disaster on every level you can think of. After that war, when Hillary was asked to protect that embassy, she looked the other way," Paul told the crowd.
During a brief welcome before Paul's address, Sarasota Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters vowed to bring every 2016 presidential candidate "from all walks of life to Sarasota to help energize and engage all its citizens."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who recently ended his Fox News Channel television program, signaling he might try a run for president on the Republican ticket in 2016, recently visited Sarasota and Fort Myers to promote a new book, "God, Guns, Grits and Gravy."
Some of the audience who came to Sarasota to hear what Paul had to say spoke positively about him.
"I think he has the ability to broaden the party's appeal because he speaks about issues that poll extremely well with independents," said Paul Fosse, who drove from Tampa, where he's a member of the Hillsborough County Republican Party. "More and more are voting for the person and not for the party,"
David Morgan, a small business owner from Sarasota who said he is running for Sarasota City Commission, said that jobs will be a critical message for Republicans in the next presidential election.
"Jobs, the economy ... I think those are always important no matter who you are, especially here in Florida; and not just jobs, but high-paying jobs."
For Tim Donner, a Washington, D.C.-area resident wintering in Sarasota, Paul represented the future of the Republican Party.
"With the field so large, he needs to distinguish himself, but I think his pure-Libertarian message is resonating, particularly among young people and non-traditional Republican citizens."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.