SXSW: Rand Paul's Texas tech play

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Conventional political wisdom in the US is that the path to the Republican presidential nomination goes through the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

So what exactly is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul doing here in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest interactive conference?

It all comes down to dollars, votes and technological know-how. If the Kentucky senator is going to find a path to the presidency, it will likely be anything but a conventional campaign. He needs support - both political and financial - from non-traditional sources.

Jeb Bush appears to be locking up much of the Republican establishment. He's got so much cash in hand he's actually told his fund-raisers to ease off for the moment.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is pulling in money from grass-roots Tea Party conservatives, thanks to a network of donors he built up in his battles against his state's unions and the unsuccessful recall campaign they waged against him in 2012.

Mr Paul needs to build on his donor base - and the libertarian-leaning technology moguls gathering here in Austin this week could prove to be a receptive audience.

There's more than just money at stake, however. Texas may not be one of the high-profile early voting states, but it's not exactly bringing up the rear, either. It is by far the largest of seven states tentatively scheduled to vote on March 1, with only nine states due up before then. If Mr Paul can survive the first wave of voting, Texas - the state where he was raised and attended college - could loom large.

In addition, like his father Ron Paul's presidential campaigns before in 2008 and 2012, Mr Paul's White House effort will likely rely heavily on internet-based organising to get off the ground. He needs the type of innovators who are bar-hopping and networking in this state capital to build his campaign's infrastructure.

In fact, even before he formally opens a campaign office in Austin - expected after he announces his candidacy in the next two months - he dispatched a group of technology staffers to set up shop in a downtown office-sharing space, rubbing elbows with an assortment of local start-up entrepreneurs

"The difference between Paul and some of the other potential contenders is he seems to have a very detailed and concerted plan - a vision, and a method to the madness - that he's been executing for over a year on how to build an arsenal to overcome his opponents," write Breitbart's Matthew Boyle.

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And so Rand Paul's Austin visit - he's the only candidate to put in an appearance here this week - could pay dividends. On Saturday night he posed for photographs at a private party hosted by the internet radio company Pandora. On Sunday he sat down with Texas Tribune head Evan Smith and later took part in an online Twitter town hall forum.

During the Tribune interview Mr Paul said he wants to appeal to a "leave me alone" coalition, which "thinks that government doesn't know everything, that government really shouldn't be telling us what to do, for the most part, and that we want to be left alone, whether it's our economic lives or our personal lives".

He pitched himself as a strong supporter of criminal sentencing reform and said the National Security Agency's bulk data-collection surveillance programme should be "shut down".

He also took a few shots at the favourite for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, criticising her use of a private email system while secretary of state and saying she and former President Bill Clinton "think they are somehow above the law".

He was put on the defensive, however, when questioned about his decision to join 45 other Republican senators in signing Senator Tom Cotton's letter to Iran, which critics have said undercuts President Barack Obama's attempts to reach a negotiated agreement on the nation's nuclear programme.

He countered that the letter actually helps the president.

"I want the president to negotiate from a position of strength, which means that he needs to be telling them in Iran that 'I've got Congress to deal with'," he said.

From Austin, Mr Paul heads to New Hampshire, where he will spend two days at campaign-style events.

The senator may be planning for a long nomination battle, but sometimes the conventional wisdom is wise. That path to the presidency is much easier with a win in the Granite State.

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