Will Edward Snowden affect presidential race? Rand Paul hopes so.

Snowden's leaks about NSA surveillance have launched a broad discussion about civil liberties, and Rand Paul is using civil liberties and NSA overreach as themes with which to frame his brand of libertarianism.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 7, 2014. Sen. Paul is using civil liberties and NSA overreach as themes with which to frame his brand of libertarianism.

Will Edward Snowden affect the 2016 presidential race? Yes, it’s early yet, so in some ways the question appears very premature. But Snowden’s leaks about the extent of National Security Agency surveillance have launched a wide-ranging discussion about civil liberties in the US. And it’s already clear that the issue could play a part in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in particular.

That’s because Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is using civil liberties and NSA overreach as themes with which to frame his brand of libertarianism. This was on full display at the just-completed Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington, D.C. Senator Paul’s speech was almost entirely about the NSA and what he sees as its infringement on the rights of Americans.

Paul said the American Revolution’s “sons of liberty” would “make a bonfire” of the secret orders that authorize NSA actions. In a reference to NSA monitoring of cell phone metadata, he said that “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their [expletive] business.”

Paul brought up the lawsuit he’s filed against the NSA for its activities, and said he was talking about electing “lovers of liberty,” not just Republicans.

“Don’t forget, there is a great battle going on for the heart and soul of America,” Paul said.

That was pretty tough stuff. The (seemingly) unending stream of revelations from documents made public by Snowden and his journalistic partners is what has made Paul’s approach possible. But the crowd at CPAC loved it. Paul won the meeting’s presidential straw poll for the second year running.

“Paul’s address ... unapologetically heavy with libertarian sentiment was far and away the best-received speech of the weekend,” concluded CNN national political reporter Peter Hamby.

That doesn’t mean he’s assured of the nomination, of course, or even a front-runner. CPAC’s audience skews young and male, a demographic for which libertarianism is attractive.

But Paul’s hammering on the NSA issue does separate him from his fellow GOP contenders. In particular it draws a distinction with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another contender for the backing of tea party groups and adherents.

Senator Cruz, for his part, emphasized over the weekend that he does not agree with Paul’s non-interventionist views on foreign affairs. He’d be more hawkish on the Ukraine crisis, for instance. Cruz has signed on to a Senate effort to enact more economic sanctions in Iran, while Paul has not.

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz told ABC News' Jonathan Karl for the Sunday talk show "This Week."

The question is whether Paul’s NSA emphasis can trump traditional GOP hawkishness with primary voters. Edward Snowden himself has said that he believes “libertarian millenials” such as him are a coming trend in US politics. The upcoming GOP race may show whether that generation has become a significant presence in the Republican Party.

“It’s clear that libertarians are becoming a vocal faction within the Republican ranks,” writes Jamie Fuller of the Washington Post on “The Fix” political blog.

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