Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser in Nashville on Saturday, May 30, 2015.

NASHVILLE -- Expected Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush on Saturday took issue with GOP rival Rand Paul over renewal of the Patriot Act, saying, "I think the law has kept us safe, plain and simple."

Speaking with reporters before an address to Tennessee Republicans' annual fundraising dinner here in Nashville, the former Republican Florida governor, whose brother George W. Bush as president pressed for the law, said, "there's been no violation of civil liberties."

"And protecting the homeland has to be one of the first and most important obligations for people who are serving in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "And I hope the Patriot Act is renewed."

Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky who has been critical of the National Security Agency and a White House hopeful, issued a statement earlier Saturday saying, "tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program."

He said, "I do not do this to obstruct. I do it to build something better, more effective, more lasting, and more cognizant of who we are as Americans."

Asked about the statements, Bush told reporters, "I know what will happen if there's an attack. ... People will say, 'Where were you?'"

GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes said the fundraiser brought in more than $600,000, a record in a non-election year. Tickets ranged from $250 all the way up to $10,000 for a "governor's roundtable" package.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows a divided GOP electorate at this very early stage. Bush is in a five-way tie for first among Republican voters, with each garnering only 10 percent support. The others are in the top ranks are retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The Bush family is hardly a stranger in Tennessee. Jeb Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, and brother, George W. Bush, won Tennessee's GOP primaries in their presidential campaigns.

But in more recent years, most state Republican primary voters have given their hearts to social conservatives.

Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania carried the day respectively over John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Both men are running again this year.

Huckabee continues to enjoy support in the Volunteer State. Among his supporters is U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.

"Well, I will say this. Gov. Huckabee has been such a good friend to me," the Chattanooga congressman said at the dinner. "He's endorsed me three times."

And the former Arkansas governor has support from former Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican.

"I served with him while I was governor and I've found him to be very reasonable," Sundquist said.

For Bush, Saturday's event was an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of Tennessee's richest Republicans, a prime source of political money.

Gov. Bill Haslam's father, James "Big Jim" Haslam II, founder of Pilot Flying J travel centers, ranks No. 284 on a 702-person list compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics of the nation's top individual political contributors.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., presented "Big Jim" Haslam with the Howard H. Baker Award at the dinner for his decades-long fundraising efforts on behalf of the GOP.

The governor's brother, James "Jimmy" Haslam III, is on the list, too, as are Willis Johnson, founder of online auto auction giant Copart in Franklin, Tenn., and Aegis Corp. founder David Black, husband of U.S. Rep. Diane Black.

As 2016 approaches, Tennessee is among as many as seven GOP-dominated states aiming to give the party nomination process a Southern accent. Their effort calls for resurrecting "Super Tuesday." Only they're dubbing it the "SEC primary," given that Georgia, Florida and other possible participants such as Texas all have football teams in the Southeastern Conference.

The 2016 general election, other than the presidential contest, is likely to be a lackluster affair in Tennessee, with most of the action coming earlier in next year's party primaries. Haslam is midway through his second term and neither U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., nor U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are on the ballot.

If history is any guide, whoever emerges as the GOP presidential nominee has a good chance of carrying increasingly red Tennessee in the 2016 general election.

In the past 10 presidential elections, only three Democrats -- Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976 and Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 and 1996 -- have won the state. Clinton, who had Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate, only won with pluralities.

And as everyone knows, Gore famously lost his own state and the national contest to Jeb Bush's older brother, George W. Bush, in 2000.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.