Rand Paul has a “kick me” sign on his back — and he put it there himself…

Paul is becoming the preferred punching bag of Republican presidential hopefuls. Of course, many of them are eager to attack Paul to win media attention and bolster their national security credentials. But the bashing will be a persistent challenge for Paul as he navigates the tricky challenge of galvanizing his base, dominated by isolationists, while competing in a Republican primary that remains heavily influenced by traditional foreign policy hawks…

The Paul-hating could come to a head this weekend when the Senate convenes for a rare Sunday session in a last-ditch attempt to prevent key NSA surveillance tactics from lapsing at midnight — something both President Barack Obama and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have sought to avoid…

“If you’re Rand Paul, [you] don’t want to escape it,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson said of attacks from GOP 2016ers. “If you’re Rand Paul, you want to frame this as devil D.C. RINO war hawks versus son of Ron, anti-interventionist water’s edge — everything opposite of the 2000-era muscular foreign policy.

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The Republican candidates in the crowded and growing presidential field may each be trying to break out of the pack, but there’s one policy area where debate is scarce. In recent weeks, and particularly here at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the GOP candidates and near-candidates have all sounded remarkably consistent on foreign policy, from the broad themes to the details…

The glaring exception to all this hawkishness, of course, is Rand Paul, the libertarian senator who made his mark in 2013 with a filibuster protesting the American policy of using drones to kill Americans engaging in terrorism overseas. Paul was absent from Oklahoma City last month, busy with another filibuster to stop the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program. Days later, in an interview on MSNBC, the Kentucky senator lambasted the “hawks in our party” for policies that he said have allowed the terrorist group ISIS to “exist and grow.”

“Everything that they’ve talked about in foreign policy, they’ve been wrong about for 20 years,” Paul said of the Republican hawks. “And yet they have somehow the gall to keep saying and pointing fingers otherwise.”

But whether Paul likes it or not, the GOP is the hawkish party, and its presidential nominee is likely to be hawkish, too. That’s clear enough from the rhetorical echoes across the field. Here’s Christie in a major foreign policy address in New Hampshire last month: “Throughout history, leaders in both parties have based our foreign policy on these principles: strength, leadership, and partnership with the people and nations who share our values.” Bobby Jindal, in an interview: “I want a world where our friends trust us and our enemies fear and respect us. That was the bipartisan consensus post-World War II through the Cold War.” Rubio, at the Council on Foreign Relations in May: “Only American leadership will bring safety and enduring peace. America led valiantly in the last century—from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan.” And Walker, in an interview: “Think back to Harry Truman. This is a bipartisan view that we’ve historically had that when we win, we don’t want to give up the victory.”

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Every few hours, the campaigns of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul send out a donor message about his fight against the Patriot Act. In each one, this coming Sunday is marked as a do-or-die moment to block the most loathed provisions of the law. In one Wednesday e-mail, Paul made a winking, knowing reference that assumed his followers were watching closely.

“If I’m going to slug it out Sunday with the spy state apologists, I’m going to need all the help and support I can get,” Paul wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems the president, the senior senator from Arizona and other members of the ‘eye roll’ caucus who can’t stand any mention of the Bill of Rights are all operating out of the same playbook.”…

As he travels in Iowa Thursday, and South Carolina on Friday, Paul is carrying out wars on multiple fronts with more hawkish Republicans who think they can get the better of him, and who all currently trail him in the polls…

Here’s the kicker: None of [what Paul said this week about ISIS] was particularly new. Paul’s stump speech often includes a riff about how too many Republicans “loved Hillary’s war in Libya,” and too many voted to invade Iraq. He’s said it in every primary state. The only factor that changed this week was that a series of more hawkish Republicans wanted to punch up, and that Paul was happy to punch down.

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Earlier this year, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was polling near the drain pipe, supporters of Rand Paul told me they were worried. The Kentucky senator saw New Hampshire, with its crossover primary and growing libertarian vote, as perhaps the most promising of the presidential contest’s early states. He could win it by building a “liberty vote” coalition, adding in mainline Republicans and even some Democrats. That would be harder if Christie collapsed. As one state representative put it: Paul needed as many Christies as possible…

Paul’s camp is thrilled [by George Pataki’s entry into the race], and sees Pataki pulling primary votes from the middle lane. Pataki’s announcement speech offered almost nothing to “liberty” voters, suggesting at one point that “if necessary, American forces will be used to actually defeat and destroy ISIS so they can pose no threat to us here.” Pataki seemed to be climbing on a rickety cart that might contain Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and John Kasich; Republicans running on experience and telling-it-like-it-is to hard-right voters.

“No question, [Pataki] splits the moderate vote,” said New Hampshire State Senator Andy Sanborn, an early endorser of Paul. “Three months ago, we talked about the easy path for Jeb, as it appeared he would be the only moderate in the race. Now, not only does Jeb have Christie, Pataki, Kasich to split that demographic, but as you see, Rubio is also moderating. In the end, this, plus the pro-war stance all other candidates have taken has put Rand in a singular space. A great place to be, especially in light of the poll today, showing he is one of the leaders in a match-up with Clinton.”

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A majority of early-state insiders believe it’s helpful for Rand Paul to differentiate himself from the Republican field through his views on foreign policy and national security. But over the course of the campaign, many say, those same positions will prove to be a serious liability

An Iowa Republican was even more blunt: “Helps him with his base of liberty followers. But God help us if someone like him was ever to be President. His foreign policy and national security views are more frightening than any prominent Democrat, save Sen. Sanders.”…

“Rand was trying not to be his father [former Rep. Ron Paul], he had taken the most serious approach to date in reaching out beyond the confines of our primary base, to build upon his father’s base,” said a New Hampshire Republican. “But his ISIS comments were way over the line, almost Obama-like in blaming the [medieval] Christian crusades as the cause of ISIS. This will sink his chances to break out from Ron Paul 2012.”

Going a step further, an Iowa Republican added, “It solidifies his ceiling at under 10 percent. Every day that passes it appears that Rand Paul should be Hillary Clinton’s [Democratic] primary opponent.”

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“The reason that they’re going after Rand Paul is, they feel like Rand Paul’s views were more popular and more on the ascendancy a couple years ago than they are today,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations who now serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“He’s doubling down on these views. He’s doing filibusters and a lot of television talk shows trying to make the case that the Patriot Act and the NSA are infringing on civil liberties and that this is a tremendous threat to the country. I don’t think that’s where most Republican primary voters are.”…

“Christie’s target base of voters is in the center of the party, the more establishment voters,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide. “He’s trying to raise his profile by being the most strident in attacking Paul and hurt Paul with the more middle-of-the road voters.”

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Speaking of gall, and a word of political advice, an aide might want to remind Senator Paul which party’s nomination he is seeking. Republicans who begin their campaigns assailing other Republicans rarely succeed—especially when the accusation is culpability for a would-be caliphate that uses executions, slavery, extortion, rape and general terror to enforce oppression in the Middle East and North Africa, and whose ideology inspires jihadists world-wide.

More to the point, even President Obama now largely refrains from blaming George W. Bush for all the world’s ills, albeit with an exception here and there for old time’s sake. Maybe even he recognizes that the statute of limitations has expired for Republicans who haven’t run the executive branch for seven years and have had no perceptible influence on Administration policy.

Mr. Paul is intelligent enough, and his misreading of recent Middle Eastern history is so flagrant, that he might be trying to deflect attention from his own misjudgments. In Mr. Obama’s second term, the U.S. has largely followed Mr. Paul’s foreign-affairs preferences to the letter, and the result has been more chaos and disorder…

Mr. Paul seems to think he can win the GOP nomination on an anti-interventionist platform, though we think he’d be better off focusing on his domestic agenda. But if he wants to run as an Obama Republican on foreign policy, he shouldn’t also adopt the Obama trick of rewriting history. It reflects poorly on his judgment as a potential Commander in Chief.

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While his rivals cultivate wealthy backers who will pump millions of dollars into their candidacies, Paul has struggled to find a similar lifeline. It’s led to considerable frustration in his campaign, which, amid rising concerns that it will not be able to compete financially, finds itself leaning heavily on the network of small donors who powered his father’s insurgent White House bids…

Among those involved the 2016 money sweepstakes, theories of Paul’s struggles abound. Some point to his anti-establishment posture, which has alienated some in the business community — much of whose support has gone for Bush. Others say his more dovish foreign policy stances has turned off Jewish Republicans, many of whom view him as insufficiently pro-Israel. Still others say he’s found competition from Cruz, who like Paul has branded himself as a free-market thinker.

Others contend that Paul’s unpolished style might be working against him as he seeks out the support of wealthy Republican benefactors, While attending a California donor conference sponsored by Charles and David Koch, two of the nation’s most powerful Republican donors, Paul was criticized for dressing casually in jeans, slouching in his chair and giving rambling answers to questions. One person briefed on the Kochs’ thinking said Paul’s star has faded in their eyes, and that it’s now hard to see them providing substantial financial support to the Kentucky senator.

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Quinnipiac concludes that while 59 percent of Americans believe going to war in Iraq was the wrong thing to do, Republicans still support the decision by 62 percent to 28 percent. This is on top of a Vox Populi/Daily Caller poll showing that 59 percent of early state Republicans continued to back the 2003 invasion…

It could leave him exactly where it left his father. But that’s not the only possibility. First, the minority percentage of Republicans who told Quinnipiac they think the Iraq war was a mistake is nearly three times as large as the share of the vote going to each of the five GOP front-runners in the poll. Paul is the only member of this huge field courting that vote…

Factor in second choices and Paul is closer to the top of the field than the bottom. If — and this is admittedly a big if — Paul can continue to press his case on foreign policy without losing his credibility with the base, he can contribute to making the Iraq war less of a partisan issue. At least some of the rank-and-file Republican reluctance to label the Iraq war a mistake is just a preference for siding with Bush over President Obama.

Maybe Paul’s rivals can score the knockout blow against the Kentucky senator by putting him on Obama’s side rather than Bush’s. Paul is going to have try to establish that Iraq war buyer’s remorse is a legitimate conservative Republican position.

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Other conservatives in the stand-against-Rand caucus include South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (“I’m going to challenge his construct that the NSA and those who work there are more dangerous to our country than the al-Qaeda and ISIL threat”), Graham’s Arizona pal Sen. John McCain (“Some time ago senators would try to sit down and work things out and obviously these individuals don’t believe in that, and I’m sure it’s a great revenue raiser”), John Sununu (“Senator Paul is also an advocate of gutting the defense budget. He’s in fact to the left of Obama on both of those issues”), Max Boot (“these lawmakers are holding…renewal hostage until they get what they want—which is weaken our defenses against terrorism”), Andrew C. McCarthy (“Rand Paul is laughably wrong when he insists the NSA program violates the Fourth Amendment”), and so on.

What’s interesting is that, as McCarthy explicitly acknowledges and laments, the pro-surveillance hawks are losing the argument. Rand Paul—excuse me, the dangerously unserious Rand Paul—has changed the debate, and he might well end up changing the law, too. Mark my words from July 2013: If Paul were to somehow come out the other end of all this as the GOP nominee, there will be some star-studded names at the Neocons for Hillary PAC.

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Via RCP.