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Rand Paul tests N.H. presidential waters

Rand Paul speaks at a breakfast in Urbandale, Iowa, during a three-day, eight-city tour of the state in early August.
Rand Paul speaks at a breakfast in Urbandale, Iowa, during a three-day, eight-city tour of the state in early August.Scott Olson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Every few weeks, inside a Manchester, N.H., radio studio, conservative host Jack Heath gets a phone call from Washington. Rand Paul is interested in coming on his show. Again.

Perhaps more than any other potential 2016 presidential candidate, Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, is putting an early emphasis on New Hampshire, a state where his father did well in 2012 and where the “Live Free or Die” motto may provide a template for his ideology. He already has paid staff in the state, talks frequently with local activists, leads in an early poll, and on Thursday night arrived for his third trip of the year.

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Not that he has decided to run. But the swirl of speculation boosts the buzz.

“I would only want to become involved if I had a real shot at winning,” Paul said in an interview. “I think the country, the party, and in many ways all of the electorate is moving in a libertarian direction. Really there is a great possibility. But we’ll see how it looks in the spring.”

New Hampshire, perhaps better than any other state, neatly illustrates the promise and the peril of any Rand Paul presidential campaign.

Paul can capitalize on the passion that his father, Ron Paul, then a US House member from Texas, brought to some segments in the party during presidential bids in 2008 and 2012. But at the same time, Paul must distance himself from his father’s ideology enough to be seen as a viable contender, not just a fringe candidate.

He must convince voters that his skepticism about US military invention abroad can coexist with backing strikes against the Islamic State.

“He’s got a very delicate balance to do, which is try to be politically pure and an ideologue — and keep activists engaged,” said Jim Forsythe, a former New Hampshire state senator who was chairman of Ron Paul’s campaign. “But also to broaden the support.”

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Unlike Ron Paul, Forsythe said bluntly, the son “knows how to filter what he’s saying.”

That more cautious approach is evident when Paul is asked how he would campaign differently from his father.

“That’s hard for me to put my finger on,” Paul said. “I am who I am and people will figure that out over time. But I don’t . . . know that it’s my job to characterize that.”

Two months ago, Paul hired Mike Biundo, a New Hampshire-based GOP operative who helped run Rick Santorum’s campaign in 2012. Biundo is now the chief New England strategist for Paul’s political action committee, RAND PAC, and is planning a more formal organization that could aid a presidential bid. It is being built upon the network that Rand Paul helped his father build.

Rand Paul was very much a part of his father’s earlier runs for the White House. As early as 2007, he was sending ideas to his father’s New Hampshire staff, and later filled in for his father at events.

“He’d introduce his dad or stand in for him. And that’s when a lot of people started urging him to run,” Forsythe recalled. “Everybody back then was recognizing his potential. But he was very resistant.”

In 2008, Ron Paul got 8 percent of the vote in the state primary, finishing fifth. But in 2012, he got 23 percent of the vote, trailing only Mitt Romney.

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“I think it gives us an enormous organizational advantage if I decide to do this,” Rand Paul said of the groundwork laid by his father. Moreover, he said the state’s ethos is politically fertile ground for a libertarian. “The [state’s] motto somewhat represents the people: Live free or die. There definitely is sort of a ‘leave me alone’ coalition of folks in New Hampshire.”

Some former backers of the father said they liked the way the son is seeking to reach beyond libertarian purists.

“People flocked to Ron Paul. If you believed in liberty and freedom and the Ron Paul philosophy, you would go to him,” said Andy Sanborn, a state senator who was cochairman of Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in New Hampshire. “Whereas Rand’s approach . . . it’s such a dramatically broader demographic of people.”

While polls mean little this early, Paul has gained publicity from a July NBC News-Marist poll that found Paul leading among potential Republican primary voters, with 14 percent, followed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, with 13 percent; former Florida governor Jeb Bush, with 10 percent; and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, with 9 percent.

“He’s been the most proactive,” said Heath, who hosts the “New Hampshire Today” show on WGIR-AM on which Paul is a frequent guest. “I’ve said this on the show, but if the primary were held today, he wins the New Hampshire primary.”

But a source of tension for Paul could be the perception that he is an isolationist at a time when there is overwhelming support for military action against the group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS.

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“There’s been a segment of the Republican Party that has been eager for all war, you know, indiscriminately in favor of being involved in every hot spot in the world,” Paul said. “There’s some in our party who, if they had their way right now, would have boots on the ground in 15 countries. I don’t think that’s where the Republican Party is, I don’t think that’s where the American people are.” Still, he objected to being called an “isolationist,” saying, “I think that ISIS is now a threat, and we do have to do something.”

Paul said he has been to New Hampshire more than 20 times. On Friday he has a schedule with all the hallmarks of a presidential campaign. He is to speak at the GOP unity breakfast, attend a luncheon in Manchester with local business owners, and endorse GOP Senate nominee Scott Brown during a rally at the University of New Hampshire.

For a future trip, he has a potentially dangerous idea in mind: doing a little New Hampshire-style ice sailing.

“I would love to do that,” he said. “Somebody told me they just fly across the ice.”

It’s a photo op that could either become a consultant’s dream (showcasing a candidate’s prowess handling tricky situations at high speeds) or nightmare (a la John Kerry’s windsurfing that led to an attack ad that said he shifted like the winds).

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Stay tuned.

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.