Paul makes key stop in Maine, with state GOP split between libertarians and establishment

The next presidential election is two years away, but Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s visit to Maine on Saturday is being considered perhaps his most important so far in his potential 2016 White House bid.

The Maine Republican Party has been plagued by infighting since libertarian activists loyal to Paul's father -- former GOP presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- seized control of it in 2012.

The activists took over the state convention and elected a majority slate of delegates for Paul.

However, establishment Republicans challenged the move, and the national committee voted to replace half of Maine's delegates for Paul with supporters of Mitt Romney, the party's presidential nominee.

In Maine, Paul is trying to strengthen his appeal beyond his father's passionate supporters to prove he can be a credible national candidate.

And he hopes to promote further party unity ahead of the November re-election test for GOP Gov. Paul LePage, considered one of most endangered Republican governors in the nation. LePage rode Tea Party support to victory in 2010.

On Saturday, Paul told the Maine GOP convention that Republicans must reach out to groups that the country has mistreated and show the party's compassionate side.

He also said that the GOP cannot be the party of corporate welfare and railed against overspending and government waste.

On Friday, Paul said at Harvard University's Institute of Politics that the Republican Party will “adapt, evolve or die."

Before the speech, he attended a private luncheon hosted by top Romney advisers. Romney's former national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick, arranged a private audience of just a dozen key members of Romney's inner circle.

"This was meant to be a real discussion with people that I view can be very helpful," Zwick told The Associated Press, adding that Paul "was very well received" during an hour-and-a-half discussion about policy and politics.

Paul is among the top, potential GOP presidential candidates, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and more recently former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Paul is going to leave Maine, and what happens within the party is still going to be there," said Vic Berardelli, chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus.

But Paul also provides an opportunity to bridge the gaps between the different factions with a message that appeals more broadly than his father's, members of the party say.

Over the past year, Paul has stood alongside Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in places such as New Hampshire and Michigan as the national party works to smooth over internal divisions and strengthen its appeal among young people and minorities.

Paul has helped fellow Republicans across the political spectrum raise money, as he is expected to do Saturday for Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is widely considered a moderate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.