Even in Iowa, a dovish state where Paul holds strong favorability ratings, the appetite for increased military interventionism against ISIS is high. In a new Bloomberg survey, nearly half of Republicans ranked "more aggressively pursuing terrorists" as a leading issue out of 10 tested, ranking a close second behind repealing Obamacare.
But as the country is taking a hawkish turn, Paul has instead veered to the left. He's the only Senate Republican opposing the reimplementation of tough sanctions on Iran, cosponsoring a less-punitive alternative bill with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer. He's one of the few Republicans to support President Obama's push to normalize relations with Cuba, making him the only Republican presidential candidate to take that position. When he spoke to an ostensibly friendly, libertarian-minded audience at the Koch-backed Freedom Partners summit last month, Paul received a cool reception for his foreign policy views while Sen. Marco Rubio's more-hawkish views received an enthusiastic response.
Paul's positions have become so out-of-step with the Republican electorate that even those who agree with him on foreign policy are sounding bearish about his chances. "If we are being honest, the 2014 election re-empowered and reinvigorated the party's hawks," correspondent Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in The Week.
If the election was taking place in 2008, with a war-weary public, Paul's views might be getting more traction. Or if foreign policy was playing a secondary role in politics, as it did throughout Obama's first term, Paul's path to the nomination would be a little clearer. But even Paul understands the political reality of running as a dove in a hawkish party. Last September, he wrote an op-ed in Time magazine declaring he "was not an isolationist" in the wake of newfound terrorist threats—saying he would have acted more "strongly and decisively against ISIS" than Obama. More recently, however, he's been abandoning the pose that his noninterventionism constitutes toughness.
To be sure, there's a small but vocal constituency within the GOP that favors Paul's cautious positioning on foreign policy. Despite his heterodox views, Paul still holds strong favorability ratings among Republican voters. And in such a crowded field, a candidate who can build up a strong, reliable core of supporters will have a shot to win the nomination. He could conceivably get traction by pressing more-hawkish GOP candidates on whether they support sending troops to the Middle East—a position that draws less support, but still majority backing among Republicans.
Yet it's still telling how most of his Republican opponents aren't even hedging their bets on a more assertive American foreign policy. On ABC's This Week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker bolstered his hawkish bona fides by declaring support for American troops being deployed into Syria if necessary to defeat ISIS. This week, Rubio led Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearings decrying the president's policy in Cuba. Jeb Bush has laid out a foreign policy vision that sounds awfully similar to his brother's, calling for sustained American engagement across the globe. It's hard to find any Republicans who don't sound like George W. Bush on the subject.