By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - Anger over a covert U.S. surveillance program has united in common cause a libertarian Republican weighing a White House bid with students at a Californian university famed for its left-wing politics.
Rand Paul, a favorite of the fiscally conservative Tea Party, told a largely welcoming, younger crowd of several hundred at the University of California, Berkeley, that U.S. government surveillance programs threatened their rights.
His choice of traditionally left-leaning Berkeley as a venue to denounce government meddling was unusual, but the Kentucky senator is keen to broaden the Republicans' appeal, particularly among young voters, as he considers a presidential bid in 2016.
"I'm not here to tell you what to be. I am here to tell you, though, that your rights, especially your right to privacy, are under assault," said Paul, pressing one of his trademark themes.
Wearing a red tie, baggy blue jeans and cowboy boots, the 51-year-old Paul pivoted between harsh rebukes of government spying programs and populist one-liners in a speech spiced with literary and cultural references late on Wednesday.
"I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business," said Paul, brandishing his own phone and drawing raucous applause from students of a university that has long prided itself as a bastion of free expression.
Paul emerged this month as favorite for the second straight year among Republican conservative activists voting for the candidate they would like to see next in the White House.
But he has faced criticism over a speech on civil rights at a historically black college that was seen as condescending and has also been accused of plagiarism.
Paul called for a bipartisan congressional committee, modeled on a group that probed CIA abuses in the 1970s, to investigate reports of government spying.
He cited media reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) impersonated Facebook web pages in order to gather information from targets.
Paul injected race into the privacy debate, referencing former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover's spying on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
"I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA," he said.
"If President (Barack) 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."
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Gareth Jones)