There was one clear superstar at the Conservative Political Action Conference: Rand Paul.

The Kentucky senator roared into the event with big momentum from his filibuster on drones and followed up with a speech that seemed to broaden his support beyond the libertarian set. “Stand with Rand” was the event’s unofficial slogan, and attendees did so by making him the winner of the presidential straw poll.

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But among the thousands of activists here for the three-day confab, last year’s losses seem to be far in the past. And the advent of young pols like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — make that especially Rand Paul — has energized conservatives here about the future of the movement.

Like in past years, the CPAC congregation tilts young and libertarian; college Republicans are well represented. Before, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul was a crowd favorite. Now that affection is being showered on his son and prospective 2016 contender, Rand…

“Americans are craving conviction and they’re craving someone that will stand up for principle,” said R.J. Robinson, 32, as he handed out flyers in the main hall. “And Rand Paul gave that to them.”…

“I’ve been very surprised, actually,” said Dan Whitfield, 30, a writer who lives in D.C. “I wasn’t really looking forward to CPAC this year, I really wasn’t, but I think the turning point was Rand’s speech.”

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It’s rather common to find college-age attendees at CPAC offering full-throated support for either the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana (lots of sly smirks when asked, but no one would admit to smoking pot, except for some of those rock-ribbed libertarian attendees). And despite the focus on the exclusion of the gay conservative group GOProud, I had a difficult time finding young conservatives who believed gay Republicans should be excluded from the conference.

Indeed, the libertarian crowd has been increasingly vocal at Obama-era CPACs—Ron Paul has routinely won the annual straw poll—but this year, the Rand Paul Brigades look something like an occupying force. Everywhere one turns, there are “Stand With Rand” signs, stickers, and T-shirts (a volunteer told me he had handed out a thousand shirts in just over two hours). In the rush to see the Kentucky senator’s speech, one Paul supporter thrust a “Stand With Rand” placard into a young conservative’s hands. He resisted, offering a sheepish apology: “Sorry, I’m not a libertarian.” The sign hustler also apologized: “Oh, sorry, it’s just that so many people here are.”…

One can debate how representative CPAC is of the conservative movement as a whole, but the libertarian and social conservative wings of the party are eyeing each other warily, with the traditionalists reacting as if they are surrounded.

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In the end, the junior senator from Kentucky and his ilk claim to have risen in defense of the Fifth Amendment, but instead they’ve given the rest of us a glimpse into the bizarre world many Libertarians inhabit.

It’s a world where conspiracy theories abound, Federal Reserve bankers are on par with al-Qaeda, and the president is an Orwellian Big Brother — the sort of stuff that attracts a rather odd bunch. For as the Wall Street Journal fittingly suggests, “if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable Libertarian kids in their college dorms.”

I witnessed these kids in action at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference when I accompanied my former boss Donald Rumsfeld, who received the Defender of the Constitution award from his friend, Dick Cheney. A gaggle of Libertarian Paulites behaved as if they were at a professional wrestling bout and shouted obscenities at the two men — some were moved to call them “war criminals.”…

Rand and Ron don’t seem to understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. The moment American Airlines flight 11 plunged into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, it was made tragically clear that warfare will likely never again be about superpower versus superpower or nation state versus nation state. Warfare is now asymmetric, where non-state actors carry out acts of war in a global battlefield.

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In his National Review interview, Senator Paul rightly faulted the 2012 GOP ticket for banking on the fallacy that victory lay in allowing no daylight between its own positions and Obama’s abominable foreign policy. But his critique then skipped the rails. The Romney/Ryan platform, he complained, “was sort of like, ‘We’ll . . . come a little bit slower out of Afghanistan. . . . ’ But Biden had a good response, ‘We’re coming home.’ And I think that’s what people want; I think that’s what people are ready for, that we’re coming home.” And why does Paul think Americans want to come home? Because of “war weariness.”

Americans are clearly not pining for our troops to come home from Europe, Japan, Korea, the Persian Gulf, or other locations where their presence assures the peace through strength on which our prosperity depends. In Afghanistan, Americans are not weary of war; they are weary — as they were in Iraq — of our government’s misconception of the war, the very thing Paul’s Heritage speech undertook to correct. They are weary of expending the lives and limbs of our best young people — and of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars in a time of existentially threatening debt — on nation-building experiments premised on the fiction that Islamic and Western cultures desire the same things.

Like Senator Paul, Americans are not anxious for war. But when it is necessary and fought for our vital interests — particularly our liberty and security — we are extremely supportive.

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The names [Paul] had in mind were of course those of John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Those spokesmen for “the GOP of old” had the bad form to call out Rand Paul after he took to the Senate floor to speculate glibly about American presidents and American military and intelligence officers calling in unprovoked domestic drone strikes against innocent Americans. McCain and Graham, advocates of what Paul calls an “aggressive” foreign policy—i.e., the foreign policy of the Republican party for the last 70 years—also challenged Paul’s general foreign policy prescription.

What does Dr. Paul prescribe? In an interview last week, Paul appealed to the wisdom of Vice President Joe Biden. In the 2012 vice presidential debate, Paul said, Biden had a good response to Paul Ryan on Afghanistan: “We’re coming home.” And, Paul continued, “I think that’s what people want. I think that’s what people are ready for, that we’re coming home.” And why does Paul think the American people are now ready for this McGovernite message? “War weariness.”…

That task of Republicans is to confront Obama on his irresponsibility, not compete with him. The task of a serious opposition party is to rally the nation to its responsibilities and long-term interests. The task of GOP political leaders is to educate the public about the dangers of the world and to inspire people to rise above their weariness. The task of American conservatives is not to let an understandable Obama-weariness turn into weariness in fighting the nation’s enemies or in supporting our troops in the field.

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