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Rand Paul vs. Rick Perry: Who's winning?

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Molly Riley/AP, Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) GOP thunderstorm? Texas Gov. Rick Perry (r.) published an op-ed that attacked Sen. Rand Paul on Friday, and the Kentucky lawmaker pushed back in his own piece published on Monday.

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This Rand Paul versus Rick Perry GOP thunderstorm popped up pretty fast, didn’t it?

It was a dark cloud on the horizon on Friday, when Governor Perry of Texas published an op-ed in The Washington Post that attacked Senator Paul as a foreign policy isolationist. Paul is reluctant to devote more US troops and weapons to Iraq, and Perry used that position to portray the Kentucky lawmaker as the reverse of Ronald Reagan, as someone who wants to hunker down at home rather than lead the world.

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“Paul is drawing his own red line along the water’s edge, creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world,” Perry wrote, mockingly.

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Then thunder and rain arrived Monday in the form of a Paul reply, posted on Politico. He made fun of Perry’s (snappy) new glasses and complained that the Texan had “fictionalized” Paul’s approach to foreign policy.

There aren’t good options in Iraq, as anyone who’s looked hard at the situation knows, Paul wrote. He supports sending more weapons to the Iraqi government and possibly using US air power to try to stem advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). He doesn’t support sending back large numbers of US troops.

“I ask Governor Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country – a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves?” Paul wrote.

That’s pretty tough stuff so far out in a pre-presidential campaign. Usually possible candidates are just raising money and quietly lining up state supporters at this point. Obviously, Paul and Perry are both thinking about serious runs. So what’s going on?

To start with, Perry’s trying to take advantage of his good week. He maneuvered President Obama into a joint discussion on immigration issues, essentially raising his own profile and national stature. You can just imagine what came next: Some bright staffer figured now was the time to build off that blip and bolster Perry’s foreign policy credentials.

Plus, Perry’s behind. It’s early yet, but as our colleague Brad Knickerbocker noted on Saturday, the Texas governor is running at about 4 percent in polls of potential GOP primary voters. He’s down there with the wannabes and fringe players, while Paul is leading at the moment, the putative front-runner at about 13 percent.

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Pick a fight with the person ahead of you. That’s a classic political move in a crowded field. The corollary for the politician who’s attacked is, don’t acknowledge the poke. It only puts you on the lower man or woman’s level. Yet Paul has acknowledged it and punched back. Why?

Because Perry hit him where it hurts, that’s why. When it comes to foreign policy, Paul is not exactly his father’s son. He’s more prone to embrace limited actions overseas, and he can talk tough about ISIS and other foreign threats to US interests. Dad Ron Paul is more of a non-interventionist.

But it is true that in the context of recent decades of Republican politics, Rand Paul is practically a dove. He says that the United States should fight wars only following congressional authorization and that Mr. Obama has overstepped legal presidential powers in his use of drones as a means of covert armed action. He’s famously decried the NSA’s surveillance operations, a position that thrills the Democratic Party left.

Paul’s supporters argue that these positions would position him to do well in a general election. But he has to win the Republican nomination to reach that point – and GOP primary voters are more conservative than the nation as a whole.

Thus Perry’s attack on his Iraq positions “could be taken as an early sign that Paul’s 2016 opponents won’t make the mistake of his 2010 Senate primary opponent Trey Grayson in giving Paul a virtual pass on his heretical foreign policy views," writes Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog. This is a time, Mr. Kilgore adds, "when the subject may represent the most important area of genuine intraparty disagreement.”