COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul hopes a visit Friday to South Carolina, home to the South’s first presidential primary balloting, can show voters that he can appeal to a broad audience, including some who haven’t traditionally supported Republicans.

“We come with the hope of trying to grow the Republican Party, bringing the message to people who haven’t been hearing it ... to try to broaden our message,” Paul told The Associated Press prior to a Friday trip to the state. “I think we’ll get a good reception.”

The Kentucky Republican is spending time in South Carolina meeting with tea party-leaning groups and headlining a state GOP fundraiser.

South Carolina primary voters won’t cast their ballots for more than two years. But in the state, like others with early primaries and caucuses, Paul’s name is frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential contender. He’s also made recent trips to other early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

South Carolina voters are eager to hear Paul’s conservative message, said state GOP chairman Matt Moore, adding that South Carolina will host other potential 2016 White House hopefuls in the coming months.

Paul first stepped onto the national stage in 2010 when he vanquished Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s chosen Kentucky candidate in a GOP primary. Since then, he’s embraced the popularity he has in the tea party and has inherited the libertarian-leaning political network of his father, three-time presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Broad appeal

The 50-year-old eye doctor has been difficult to pigeonhole in the Senate. He was one of four Republicans to support President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to serve as Defense secretary, yet he used his tea party response to Obama’s State of the Union address to blast what he called the president’s belief in more debt and higher taxes. In March, he carried out a 13-hour filibuster of Obama’s pick for CIA director as he demanded an administration statement that aerial drones would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens.

Paul has said he opposes a federal ban on gay marriage, and yet told religious conservatives in Iowa that he would fight gay marriage at the state level. He’s also pushed for more outreach to black and Hispanic voters.

Paul has already begun introducing himself to voters in other early primary states, portraying himself during a recent visit to Iowa as a candidate with broad appeal who can reach out to voting blocs that have traditionally supported Democrats. During a visit to Iowa last month, he told state Republicans that the party needs to alter its tone toward black and Hispanic voters before the next presidential contest.

Potential Republican 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 last year lost seats in the GOP-controlled House, failed to capitalize on a once-promising shot at winning a Senate majority and saw the party’s presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, lose to Obama.

During his Iowa trip, Paul met with evangelical pastors and Republican party activists. In South Carolina, he’s meeting with party activists in Greenville before traveling with Moore for “listening sessions” in Spartanburg and Columbia. He’ll cap the trip with a fundraising barbecue at the State Farmer’s Market.

S.C. involvement

Paul has waded into South Carolina politics in other ways, endorsing former Gov. Mark Sanford’s successful congressional bid this past spring, praising Sanford as an advocate for limited government and cutting spending.

And Paul is already playing a more subtle role in U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s coming re-election contest next year. State Sen. Lee Bright, a Republican who is mulling a primary challenge to Graham, has said Paul’s 13-hour filibuster criticizing U.S. drone policy — and Graham’s criticism of it — encouraged him to pursue a challenge.

“We’ve got a choice. Either we’re going to have a nation or we’re not,” Bright told talk show host Glenn Beck earlier this year. “If we don’t get behind Rand Paul and what he is trying to do and the Ted Cruz’s of the world, I don’t think we can survive.”

Cruz, a tea party Republican, is Texas’ junior U.S. senator. He was elected last year.

This week, Paul declined to discuss Graham specifically but said the party’s divide on issues like national security must be addressed.

“I think the GOP has two wings developing. One wing, I think, is eager for war and thinks war is always the answer. The other wing is more reluctant and believes that war should be decided by Congress, that Congress should vote on whether we should go to war. We’re also the wing of the party who doesn’t think your email or your regular mail should be opened by the government without a warrant.”

“Instead of peace through strength, they believe in war through strength.”