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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is working to improve the Republican Party's image among young voters as he visits South Carolina, a key state in the presidential primary calendar.
The tea party favorite, who hopes to strengthen his national network ahead of a likely White House bid, says the GOP has a big opportunity to attract more young voters — a group that fueled President Barack Obama's success and could prove critical to Hillary Rodham Clinton should she seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Polls suggest Obama's standing with younger voters has slipped significantly in recent months.
"Young people aren't so wedded to party," Paul, 51, said in an interview with The Associated Press before his South Carolina swing. "The kids are probably adrift somewhat. And I don't think someone who is an authoritarian, or comes from a much more authoritarian point of view like Hillary Clinton, will attract them."
On Tuesday during an event at the University of South Carolina, Paul took Clinton on directly, saying that, as secretary of state, she mishandled the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, ignoring requests for more security.
"She had her national security challenge, and the phone just kept on ringing," Paul said, referencing Clinton's 2008 television ad in which an announcer says a phone is ringing in the White House and asks, "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"
While the next presidential primary season won't begin in earnest until next year, Paul already has established himself as among the most active prospective candidates. His South Carolina visit marks his fourth appearance in the state this year, according to his office. But he disputed a recent report that he had decided to seek the presidency as long as his wife agreed.
"There has been no final decision," Paul said, noting that his wife's support is "a big part" of that decision. "But you can tell obviously by my travels and by the people who have come to work for our organization that there is an interest. We're not sitting passively by and doing nothing. We're building a nationwide organization."
Perhaps best known for his libertarian positions on civil liberties and foreign policy, Paul is casting himself as an anti-establishment conservative eager to repair what he called the Republican Party's "tattered" image.
"If we want a big party, the party has to look like the rest of America," Paul said Tuesday, also saying that, while he considers himself socially conservative, some issues often debated among Republicans should be dealt with at the state and not federal level. Paul did not elaborate on what those issues are.
He is critical of the GOP's push to require voters to present photo identification at the polls and reduce early voting in some states, moves criticized as efforts to suppress participation by minority voters who typically support Democrats. Republican-led legislatures in North Carolina and South Carolina in recent years passed Voter ID laws that were challenged by the Justice Department as discriminatory.
Paul said he doesn't think Republicans are trying to suppress the minority vote, but acknowledged that many African-Americans believe that to be the case.
"I've cautioned Republicans, 'You need to be aware of peoples' perceptions,'" he said. "If the perception is out there, why don't you start talking about something good, like restoring peoples' right to vote?"
Paul is scheduled to spend Wednesday campaigning alongside Senate candidate Thom Tillis in North Carolina, where the Republican-led legislature has voted to limit early voting and end same-day voter registration.
"I think it's a dumb idea to spend a lot of time on Republicans trying to change early voting," Paul said, citing a similar law in Texas. "My position is I want more people to vote, not less."
Steve Peoples contributed from Washington. Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP