Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made one of the boldest and most memorable statements on the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., going a place members of his party wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Now, he's literally gone to the place -- as in, Ferguson -- where he's meeting with the NAACP, the Urban League and other church and business leaders about criminal justice.

A cynic would say that Paul, a likely 2016 presidential contender, is simply trying to expand his appeal.

That cynic wouldn't be entirely wrong.

“I am a politician, and I do recognize that [Republicans] haven’t done very well with people who live in cities -- primarily African Americans -- and I do think we need to do better,” he said in a phone interview from Ferguson. “The thing I found is that you might interview 20 people, and you find that they are not ready to vote for a Republican yet, but they are interested in Republicans competing for their vote and showing up in their communities.”

Paul has been on something of an urban America tour, meeting with leaders all over the country. He is the closest thing the GOP has to a race man, unafraid to put himself in the shoes of African Americans and to talk about disparities.

But at the same time, this is a relatively new effort for him. And for a guy who in his first campaign struggled with questions about the Civil Rights Act, the discovery does coincide with his increasing national political ambitions.

"I think I’ve discovered more of urban America from being elected than not being elected. I grew up in a small rural town, so from a firsthand experience, I wasn't as aware," he said. "But as a senator ... I’ve tried to learn about problems that I frankly didn’t know as much about. And as I met with community leaders, I’ve discovered that there were things like … many people didn’t have the right to vote, and I wasn’t aware of that. And since that time, I’ve become more active in those issues."

But the education of Rand Paul is also about national politics, and it's likely he will have an even bigger platform to speak to and about urban America come 2015 and early 2016. This could pose challenges for his party and for Democrats, who seem to be focused on a different part of the Obama coalition.

Paul didn't want to speak about the specifics of the case in Ferguson, where a grand jury is still deciding whether to charge Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. But it's clear that what happened there will become an inflection point and a symbol long after the unrest is over and the case is decided.

Speaking in broader terms, Paul suggested the situation could lead to something of a political awakening.

"The episode has brought that tension to the surface, and I sense it everywhere I go -- that joblessness, poverty, criminal justice system, there are still so many things that seem to be obstacles to people getting ahead," he said. "Black unemployment is still twice white unemployment and despite having first African American president.

"So we need to discuss policies and economic freedom zones. It’s good for them to hear that Republicans do care and have plans to try to help poverty and long-term unemployment."

Paul's interest in overhauling the criminal justice system and focus on poverty dovetails nicely with efforts by other Republicans who see the high prison population as a fiscal nightmare and drug abuse as something that requires a different approach as well. It is something of a continuation or re-birth of George W. Bush's brand of compassionate conservatism.

But in steadily talking about race, about hopelessness and a sense of powerlessness -- as well as what the federal government can do to help -- Paul is up to something entirely different. He is becoming the closest thing the Republicans have to an Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson, a comparison that prompted laughter from the man himself.

"I will leave that to others I don’t know," he said. "I am trying very hard to show that Republicans do have policies and plans and do care about trying to fix problems in our nation's cities."

His challenge is not only convincing his party and white conservatives to join the conversation, but to also convince the people he is meeting with that it's not simply convenient politics.

If Paul can't do that, it's unclear who might be able to.