(CNN) – Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who's considering a 2016 presidential bid, made a pitch for his party Wednesday at the historically black Howard University, arguing why the GOP and African Americans should fall in the same column.
"I came to Howard today not to preach and to prescribe to you some special formula, but to say I want a government that leaves you alone," the Kentucky senator said. "My hope is that you'll hear me out. You're going to see me for who I am and not a caricature that's sometimes presented by political opponents."
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Paul acknowledged that his visit was uncommon–he was the first major Republican to address the school since Colin Powell gave a speech in 1994–and seemed to embrace the fact that he was speaking before what he presumed to be a largely Democratic audience.
"Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here today," he said. "I've never been, though, one to sit by and watch the world go by without participating."
His address comes just weeks after the GOP rolled out its plan to better connect with minority voters, including African Americans. The Republican National Committee will spend $10 million on staff members to communicate conservative principles in cities across the country, one of the many decisions it made following the party's major loss among minority voters in the presidential election.
President Obama won 93% of the African American vote last year, and 95% in 2008.
At Howard, the first-term senator ticked through the Republican Party's history with African Americans and civil rights, referencing President Abraham Lincoln, emancipation, and adding that the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were Republican. He ran through Republican fights for civil and voting rights, as well.
"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 the party that now loses 95% of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the great emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?" he asked.
The audience seemed generally receptive to his remarks. They laughed at his jokes and gave brief applause when he said he would fight to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, as well as when he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.
At one point, his speech was interrupted when two African American males held up a banner that said "Howard does not support white supremacy." Three security guards grabbed the protesters, and struggled with them as they were escorted out of the room. Other than that, the environment was largely cordial.
"Some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth," Paul argued. "Republicans do indeed still believe many rights remain with the people and the states respectively."
Paul staunchly defended his support of civil and voting rights, saying he's never "wavered" on the issue. During his Senate campaign in 2010, however, Paul took heat for repeatedly dodging questions about whether he thinks parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act amounted to a constitutional overreach. The senator briefly referenced the controversy Wednesday, saying the dispute is over "how much of the remedy should come under federal, or state, or private purview."
One student in the audience, Julian K. Lewis, a senior, told CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper that Paul's appearance gave the senator more credibility.
"I think Rand Paul won everyone in the room over when he made the announcement that he was going to come and speak to Howard University students because we know throughout the years, the Republican Party has blatantly ignored and disrespected the African American community," Lewis said, though he added he wasn't too convinced by Paul's message.
During his speech, Paul put forth his own theory on why Republicans lost favor among African Americans. He argued they became "impatient" during the Great Depression because "they wanted economic emancipation."
Republican policies, he said, aren't as tangible and don't "put food on the table" as quickly as Democratic polices. But the GOP believes that free market principles go beyond that by creating jobs and a more stable economy in the long run, he said.
He went on to articulate the party's stance on education and national security, saying not all Republicans are the war hawks the party became known for last decade.
Most of all, Paul argued, the party has failed to talk about the "great history and interaction between the Republican Party and black history and voting rights in our country."
"It's an uphill battle for me to try to convince you that we haven't changed, but that's part of me being here, that's what I'm trying to do anyway," he said.
- CNN's Steve Brusk and Matt Hoye contributed to this report.