Updated at: 05/10/2013 8:35 PM
By THOMAS BEAUMONT and STEVE PEOPLES
(AP) CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Republican Sen. Rand Paul opened his presidential exploration tour Friday with a splashy set of speaking engagements in Iowa designed to broaden his tea party brand into something more mainstream and, perhaps, viable.
At the same time, another Republican, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, became the first potential 2016 presidential candidate this year to visit New Hampshire, unofficially kicking off the state’s presidential primary season roughly 2 1/2 years before voting begins.
Paul, the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was the headliner at a marquee Republican dinner and was expected to meet with key voting groups in eastern Iowa.
In coming weeks, the Kentucky Republican will reintroduce himself in early voting New Hampshire and South Carolina as a durable would-be candidate able to broaden the GOP into diverse voting blocs dominated by Democrats. He’s laid some of the groundwork for his case by speaking to black and Hispanic audiences and saying he opposes a federal ban on gay marriage.
"I think people are looking for something different. You might accuse me of being not exactly the traditional cookie-cutter Republican," Paul told reporters on an afternoon of political events in Cedar Rapids. "I do know the GOP needs to grow and I want to be part of growing the GOP."
More than 1,000 miles away, Jindal reiterated his call for the GOP to stop being "the stupid party," insisting that Republicans must expand their message beyond budget austerity and shrinking government.
"In Louisiana, in New Hampshire and in America, we cannot be the party that’s obsessed with government and government only," he said at a Manchester, N.H., fundraiser for state senators.
While Jindal hasn’t ruled out a White House bid, he insisted Friday that he visited New Hampshire simply to help the local GOP.
"The reality is anybody who’s thinking about 2016 needs to have their head examined," Jindal said. "It’s way too early."
All of the prospective GOP candidates face the challenge of uniting a party without a definitive leader after election losses last year. Key voting blocs _ women, blacks and Hispanics _ voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Republicans lost seats in the GOP-controlled House, failed to capitalize on a once-promising shot at winning the Senate majority and the party’s presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, failed to unseat Obama.
The party needs to change, Paul said Friday, and that means taking another look at policies that have alienated some groups. For instance, Paul favors relaxing federal sentencing laws for drug crimes, which disproportionately penalize racial minorities.
"We need to have a Republican Party that looks like the rest of America. We need a more inclusive, diverse party," he said. "We cannot compete unless we are going to go out and say to African-Americans, we want you in our party."
Jindal said the GOP must work to appeal to "100 percent of America" and called for a more "compassionate solution" for the nation’s immigration debate. But he refused to endorse the bi-partisan immigration bill moving through the Senate that includes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
"I haven’t read the bill," he said.
Jindal, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, says he’s yet to schedule any more public appearances in early voting states.
Paul, 50, has crafted a more aggressive schedule reaching out to Republicans in early voting states to make the case that he can unite the party and broaden its appeal. The Kentucky senator starts with a key advantage: the base of more than a million supporters of his father, a libertarian Republican who sought the presidency in 1988, 2008 and 2012.
On Friday, Paul met with about 10 evangelical pastors, an influential group in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, and was to speak at the Iowa state party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner. He was expected to meet with a Republican women’s group at a Cedar Rapids-area home in the afternoon and speak at a county GOP breakfast Saturday.
After Iowa, Paul is slated to deliver the keynote address at a party banquet in New Hampshire. He’ll cap May’s busy travel schedule with a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on May 31.
Then it’s back to Iowa next month to court more pastors. And on June 28, Paul attends a fundraiser for Republicans in South Carolina, another early primary state in presidential nominating campaigns.
Among the challenges Paul faces is explaining his opposition to a federal gay marriage ban to influential cultural conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina. Paul says he would fight gay marriage at the state level, an explanation that suffices for Tamara Scott, among Iowa’s leading Christian conservatives.
"He’s trying to strategize where we can keep marriage as God designed," Scott said.
But some Iowa Republican activists are wary of Paul’s views, many of which they see as in line with his father’s libertarian ideals and at odds with GOP orthodoxy. Paul said last month Republicans "need to be the party that is reluctant to go to war," and the strong national defense he supports should be for "prevention of war," not for intervening in conflicts around the globe.
"He has a few ideas that maybe wouldn’t be exactly mine. That would be national security," said Gwen Ecklund, a Republican county chairwoman in conservative western Iowa.
Peoples reported from Manchester, N.H. Associated Press writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)