Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is leading an online poll being conducted by Contract From America as the conservative pick for president in 2016.

With 190,000 votes cast as of Monday morning, Paul leads, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio rounding out the top three. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are running in last place, ranked 32 and 31 respectively…

Rand Paul leads the poll, winning 80 percent of his match-ups, with Walker winning 76 percent and Rubio winning 73 percent…

Hecker said that Rand Paul was the clear favorite from day one of the poll, even before the senator’s dramatic filibuster last week, but “given Rand Paul’s passionate performance … it’s understandable that the base is so supportive of him.”

“Under duress and under public humiliation,” Mr. Paul said with a smile, “the White House will respond and do the right thing.”

Yet there was more than just a simple answer to an elementary question. The stand taken by the spry young pups of the Senate, while the fat old dogs dined with the president, proves there are some new pack leaders in town. No longer will a president chew up the Constitution — not as long as we’re here, the alpha pups said. And we don’t need to ask nicely over and over and over — we’ll just stand here, all of us, until the president answers.

So if old dogs really can learn new tricks, they better learn ’em, and quick, ’cuz these new dogs are growling and showing their teeth. And one thing is clear: Their bite is worse than their bark.

That means picking the right battles, something Paul especially has done well, demonstrating a political savvy that his more combative father never achieved, nor seemed to care about. Paul launched his filibuster in search of an answer to an extremely narrow question about the limits of executive power — whether the president can authorize the killing of American citizens, via drone, on American soil, even if they don’t represent a truly imminent threat. In doing so, he rallied Republicans to his cause even though they might otherwise be hesitant to support his broader, more libertarian, views on foreign policy.

“I think Rand demonstrated last week that when you stand for principle it can unify Republicans,” Cruz says. “The filibuster captivated a great many people across the country, who were heartened to see Republicans standing up, not rolling over, in the face of this administration.”

Constitutional conservatism may not be the sexiest strain in American politics, but these three are intent on bringing it back, and are uniquely suited to do it. Lee and Cruz are both lawyers deeply versed in the Constitution, as well as talented interrogators, capable of bringing out important points through relentless and logically vigorous questioning during committee hearings. Paul, an ophthalmologist by trade, is not a lawyer. But he clearly is no intellectual slouch on these issues either — as the son of Ron Paul, he was reared on the Constitution. “Rand Paul is the heart, Mike Lee is the head, he brings the intellectual, constitutional heft, and Ted Cruz is a little bit of both,” says a conservative aide.

Paul doesn’t want his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for director of the Central Intelligence Agency to be remembered as a random moment, but as the beginning of his push to shift the party.

To Paul, now is the right time to push within the GOP for less foreign intervention. “When you saw the debate between President Obama and Romney on foreign policy, they sounded pretty similar. In the vice-presidential debate, Biden was more assertive, but Ryan didn’t disagree with most of his positions,” Paul observes. “It was sort of like, ‘We’ll either come a little bit slower out of Afghanistan, or we’ll do this.’ 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.”

When asked to explain why many Republicans are open to moving away from the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy, Paul offers two words: “war weariness.” After more than a decade at war, offering only slight modifications to the Bush agenda — in his view, what the Romney-Ryan platform amounted to — will not be enough to win new voters. Many Republicans, he adds, have privately complained about the direction of the party for years, but only now, after the Romney defeat and five years after Bush, are they willing to consider fresh perspectives on the Republican worldview.

Paul’s filibuster of Brennan was based on a specific issue — the White House’s drone policy — and he says that made a difference. As much as he is eager to make a case for a new GOP foreign policy on several fronts, he predicts that his fight, and any victories, will be incremental. “There will be a place for people in the party who believe in a less aggressive foreign policy,” he says.

[G]iven how Republican foreign debates have proceeded in the recent past, I still tend to think the legitimization of Rand Paul as a right-wing folk hero has implications that extend beyond the narrow hypothetical where he chose to plant his filibuster flag. That’s because, as I’ve argued before, the relative sterility of the foreign policy conversation on the right doesn’t reflect a deep conservative uniformity on national security questions; rather, it mostly reflects the fact that the potential standard-bearers for a less interventionist worldview have been relatively easy for hawks to delegitimize as cranks, Israel-haters, RINOs, etc. And so the fact that a lot of the support for Paul from his fellow Republicans is opportunistic and confined to a narrow policy hypothetical matters less than the fact that the support exists at all — that a politician who has consistently advocated a more militarily-restrained foreign policy is suddenly being supported, elevated, and extolled at the expense of his more interventionist critics within the party.

None of this means that the entire party is about to tilt dramatically toward realism. But legitimizing, as Real Conservatives (TM), politicians who advocate restraint is a necessary precondition to broader policy change. Opportunism follows influence, and creates it — and right now Paul has more influence within his party than every other realist, paleoconservative and libertarian Republican of the last decade put together.

Ron Paul vaulted to prominence and jump-started a political movement by lobbing rhetorical bombs against war from the foreign policy margins, then watching as the bipartisan consensus recoiled in horror and a new coalition of fed-up anti-war voters came out of the woodwork. The single most frequent question longtime Republicans would ask about Dr. No was one that showed they fundamentally did not understand either him or his appeal: Couldn’t he, you know, just tone down the blowback rhetoric a bit?

That’s where Rand Paul comes in, to the occasional chagrin of Ron Paul’s fan base. While Sen. Paul has fought to de-authorize the War on Terror and explicitly delink sanctions from war as a response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he also voted yes on the sanctions. While he repeated Ron Paul’s position about ending foreign aid to Israel, he has prioritized ending foreign aid and military sales to Israel’s enemies first and even declared in January that an attack on the Jewish state should be treated as an attack on the United States. In a major foreign policy address in February, he made clear he was not a carbon copy of his father. “There are definite differences,” he declared.

Paul’s speech, in which he advocated a George Kennan−style “containment” to cope with “radical Islam” and stressed the constitutional separation of war powers between Congress and the president, was not the kind of anti-imperialist critique that audiences have come to expect from Ron Paul. He framed it as an attempt to seek a third way between “isolationism” and constant intervention. But his vision of a smaller overseas commitment and greater skepticism about American omniscience, however vague, represents one of the most radical foreign policy rethinks the Senate has seen in decades.

Given its track record since 9/11, the Rush Limbaugh right is obviously totally unreliable when it comes to civil liberties, executive power, and foreign-policy realism. At the same time, its capacity for cognitive dissonance, hatred of Democrats, mistrust of Obama, war-weariness, paranoia about tyrannical government, and ideological predisposition to Constitution-citing rhetoric makes the block as suited to following Rand Paul as John McCain or Bill Kristol, especially if the latter men are ultimately arguing — as they must if they want to be coherent — that Obama should be trusted to wield extreme power, in secret, with good judgment and moral rectitude…

I don’t want to exaggerate the size of the Rush Limbaugh right, which seems to end up every four years with the GOP presidential nominee they least desire. The behavior of moderate Republicans matters more. What I do want to make is the modest claim that Limbaugh giving this treatment to the “Paul vs. McCain” divide — even highlighting rather than glossing over the larger foreign-policy divisions at play — shows that the whole GOP is already in a very different place than it was prior to Election 2012, when every primary candidate with any chance of ultimately leading the party competed to stake out the most bellicose, hawkish positions possible, led by Mitt Romney, the eventual victor. I can’t help but wonder how events might’ve unfolded if the GOP hadn’t wasted four years on the wrong critique of Obama’s foreign policy.

Paul’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are probably far better than many would think. Paul’s main appeal is based on positions and an ability to articulate those positions in a way that brings people over to his side. One can see this not only in the willingness of fellow Republicans to praise his filibuster, but Paul’s 2010 senate victories.

In 2010, Paul overcame establishment opposition to win the Republican primary by an astounding 23 points. He then went on to defeat a solid opponent in Jack Conway in the general election by a solid 12 points…

Rand, in my opinion, will likely inherit much of his father’s organization. Assume that can give him 21% of the vote in Iowa and 23% of the vote in New Hampshire. It’s quite possible that only high 20s are needed to win both states. One has to think that given Rand’s political abilities, which his father failed to posses, he can win that extra 5% of the vote in each state to put him over the top.

Rand Paul winning either Iowa or New Hampshire, let alone both, would make him a big time power player for the 2016 primary season. It might even put him in a position to, dare I say, win the nomination.

He then called for an end to the war in Afghanistan: “I think we’ve accomplished our goals there. We got [Osama] bin Laden. We disrupted the Taliban that was harboring him. We disrupted the government that was harboring him. I think we’ve achieved our goals, and I think it is time to come home.”

Asked what sort of withdrawal schedule he desires, the libertarian-leaning senator flatly said, “We’ve been there nearly 12 years. I think it’s time to come home,” adding that an expedited timetable would have to be formed in conjunction with the generals involved in the process.