(CNN) -- They don't see many U.S. senators in ZIP Code 40203.
So Markham French, executive director of the Plymouth Community Renewal Center, was stunned when he received a call last year from Sen. Rand Paul's office asking if the lawmaker could stop by the West Louisville, Kentucky, facility to speak with patrons. French thought hard about what such a visit would mean for his impoverished community, a place with high unemployment and which, a few years ago, was ranked one of the nation's most dangerous neighborhoods because of its high crime and murder rates.
"I initially was surprised," French said. But "I came to understand that he didn't want to assume what was affecting the African-American community. He wanted to hear from the African-American community what was affecting them."
Paul got an earful.
So he listened.
And he thought.
"I didn't realize how hard it was to pay back child support when you've been in prison," Paul told CNN.
Paul, a tea party favorite, has been listening a lot these days to voices that have long felt unheard by the Republican Party: African-Americans, Hispanics and young voters. And he has given quite a lot of thought about how to connect his conservative stances on protecting personal liberties to those disparate groups' concerns about big government overreach.
He spoke Wednesday, touching on typically libertarian issues, at the University of California at Berkeley, a campus with a famously progressive culture.
"I find it ironic that the first African-American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA," Paul told the crowd of the intelligence community's domestic spying practices. "Certainly J. Edgar Hoover's illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause. Now if President Obama were here, he would say he's not J. Edgar Hoover, which is certainly true. But power must be restrained because no one knows who will next hold that power."
Paul told CNN after his speech that his Berkeley address and speeches across the country to young voters and minorities reflect "issues I believe passionately about that haven't been discussed a lot in the Republican Party."
Paul's visit to Berkeley, much like his visits to historically black colleges Howard University in Washington and Simmons College in Louisville and his push for so-called "economic freedom zones" -- areas of high unemployment in places like Louisville and Detroit that would reduce federal regulation and taxes to help boost economic growth -- are the actions of a shrewd and ambitious politician.
They are the actions of a lawmaker who is keenly aware of the nation's shifting demographic, his party's self-professed struggles to attract minority and young voters and his own desire to see his policy proposals take hold.
And while he hasn't said he's running to be his party's 2016 presidential nominee, he's doing all the things that someone who's running for president would do.
"It's pretty clear that Rand correctly assesses the changing demographics of our country and the need to broaden our appeal if we're going to compete in presidential elections and make it clear we want to be a large and inclusive party that includes all sorts of voters," Kentucky's senior senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told CNN.
McConnell, a veteran lawmaker who early on helped tutor Paul in the congressional art of tactical strategy has watched with interest the junior senator's rise to the national stage. The potential 2016 GOP presidential hopeful has carefully navigated his path and managed to benefit from an almost prescient sense of timing, close friends and political operatives say.
"He's a very smart guy with extraordinary political instincts and I think that's the reason for his rise to political prominence," McConnell said. "People tend to focus on his (filibuster) in the Senate ... but his outreach to groups we haven't done well with in national elections strikes me as different from what other aspirants are doing."
The son also rises
Paul is his father's son. And like Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman known for his devout libertarian following, the younger Paul prides himself on doing things differently.
His 2010 campaign for the Senate seat left open by retiring Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning was a long shot. He was a political rookie and certainly was not the party establishment -- including McConnell's -- choice.
He also had a few early stumbles including a near campaign-ending misstep when, during an interview, he told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that private businesses shouldn't have to adhere to the civil rights laws. He beat a hasty retreat from that comment and issued a statement saying he supports to 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It was also the year of the tea party uprising and, with the help of a fed-up conservative electorate, his father's vast donor list and his own edgy brand of pragmatic libertarianism, the younger Paul defeated secretary of state Trey Grayson, who was groomed by the establishment for the race.
Once in the Senate, Paul quickly distinguished himself as unwilling to take the traditional freshman role of keeping quiet.
Weeks into his first term he unveiled a plan he argued would trim $500 billion from the federal budget -- a plan that, while it garnered little backing on either side of the aisle and ultimately failed, did receive support from McConnell.
That May, Paul led a one-man showdown over extending the Patriot Act which included strident criticism of both Democratic and Republican leadership. The ensuing legislative delay in passage meant President Barack Obama was forced to "autopen" sign the law's extension while he was in France for the G8 summit just before it expired at midnight.
That July he blocked extending FBI Director Robert Mueller's term by two years until the agency head gave more details about how two Iraqi nationals were able to live undetected in Paul's hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, for several years. In October, another block -- this time millions in benefits for disabled and elderly refugees -- based on concerns that the money could benefit terrorists.
That year at the Conservative Political Action Conference McConnell dubbed Paul "one of the great freshman conservatives."
And that was just year one.
Now just over halfway through his first term, Paul has earned praise for his well-timed push against the intelligence community's domestic spying practices, for his criticism of the handling of the nation's mushrooming debt and for his outreach to minority and young voters. He is poised to stand as one of the frontrunners in the potentially crowded field of 2016 presidential hopefuls according to a new CNN/ORC International survey, which found 16% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents might support his bid.
His partnership with McConnell on such issues as pushing back against Obama administration-backed regulations on the coal industry and getting funding for industrial hemp research in the farm bill, illustrates "what happens when the tea party guys and the guys who have been around get together and fight together," said Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide and senior adviser to Super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership.
"As I watch him move around the country, he's incredibly well received," said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Washington lobbyist and former adviser to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President George H.W. Bush. "He's been incredibly skillful."
Then, last year came what, in hindsight, now seems Paul's timely 13-hour filibuster on the perilous possibilities of drone strikes on Americans in their own country. The talk-a-thon delayed the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA head and inspired other Republicans, including McConnell, to return to the Senate and rally to his aid.
"I remember calling my boss Rep. (Paul) Gosar to ask if he had seen what was taking place and he told me he was headed to join Rand," said Orlando Watson, a former Paul staffer who now is the communications director for black media for the Republican National Committee.
Friend and longtime Paul adviser Trygve Olson put it this way: "People hadn't thought about drones and suddenly a guy doing a 'Mr. Smith' filibuster on this captivated people."
Paul's possible pitfalls
Captivating people is one thing. Winning them over for the long term is another matter, said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist and radio host.
"Any of these people -- whether it's Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, or Rand Paul, they are doing well in the polls right now, but it's the shiny penny effect," Stewart said. "It's being strong when we get to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that counts."
If he makes a run at the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016, Paul's ability to knit together a coalition of diverse views will really be put to the test. In the primaries he'll face tough questions from conservatives on his non-interventionist foreign policy views.
Should he make it to the general election, he'll likely be grilled about how his opposition to abortion -- though he has said he could see "thousands of exceptions" -- reconciles with his staunch defense of personal liberty.
"If another Republican started making those links in a negative way then it could be a problem," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report.
He'll also have to convince big-dollar donors that he's more than just a momentary cause célèbre.
He's attempted to address that last issue by such trips as his whirlwind Silicon Valley tour last summer meeting with technology industry heads and an address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"We did a trip to Silicon Valley ... with some Romney donor-type people. We did a meeting at Facebook and it was unclear whether we'd meet with (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg)," said Olson, a longtime friend who now works with the American Crossroads Super PAC. Zuckerberg "showed up and said 'I got in late last night from Europe but I wanted to come here and meet you.' "
Paul and the social media guru hit it off.
"It was clear the two smartest guys in the room were having a conversation and the rest of us were just there," Olson said. "They would have gone on for quite a while longer and I was the one who finally ended up saying we need to get over to (the venue) or you're going to miss your speech."
As for his ability to navigate the rarefied air of high powered politics and mingle with ex-cons in Louisville, Paul said, "I've learned a lot by just showing up."
During that June visit to West Louisville, Paul heard from frustrated black men who are banned from volunteering at their children's schools because of their criminal backgrounds and from voting after completing their prison terms for nonviolent crimes.
That visit would later help inform his push to restore felon voting rights and further his views on changing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes such as marijuana possession -- issues that disproportionately impact blacks and Hispanics.
"I think it opens doors to people who haven't listened to Republicans," Paul said of his outreach.
He has since had regular conversations with the president of a local historically black college and heads of charter schools in African-American neighborhoods.
Since he left the community center, Paul has dispatched a staffer who set up a mobile office with hours that coincide with when the food pantry opens.
"No one has been here. No one else has reached out," French said. "People aren't knocking down our door to ask us how they can help."
French was so impressed with Paul that, when he heard the senator was in Shelbyville, Kentucky, he piled into his car and drove 30 miles just to see the lawmaker.
"One of the things I was impressed about is in the short run there isn't going to be a lot of support from the African-American people for Rand Paul, so I give him a lot of respect for doing this knowing there's not going to be a rush to the polls for him," French said.
But that type of outreach just might pay off in the long run, Paul said.
All it takes is "time and sincerity," he said. "People know when you're genuine as opposed to showing up during the last six weeks to try and get votes."