Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas) found himself in an unusual position at the South Carolina GOP presidential debate. According to most polls, Paul was the frontrunner of the five candidates on stage. Though some big names were missing, it signals how far Paul has come in four years.

With Donald Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee not running, the only declared candidate who consistently runs ahead of Paul in national polls is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Paul has a chance to make major strides in 2012 — if he can remember he is running a presidential campaign and not a seminar on Libertarianism 101. In 2008, Paul expected to do little other than inject libertarian and antiwar arguments into the televised debates. He ended up raising millions of dollars and finishing ahead of some presumed top-tier contenders.

The problem isn’t that Paul puts his principles above politics. The problem is that by ignoring political considerations entirely, Paul argues for his principles less effectively.

However unfairly, the takeaway from these controversies is that Paul’s concern for the rights of terrorists and racists would take precedence over his willingness to defend U.S. national security or the rights of minorities.

When Paul’s son Rand ran for Senate in Kentucky, his Republican primary opponent released an ad alleging he blamed America for 9/11. The commercial even used footage of his father debating Giuliani. Rand Paul’s first reaction wasn’t to defend blowback but to defend himself from the charge.

He broadcast an indignant response: “[Y]our shameful TV ad is a lie, and it dishonors you.”

Rand Paul won.

His father wouldn’t have to remake himself as a slick politician to follow suit. The elder Paul initially noted that he had voted for going after bin Laden, and was “delighted” the terrorist was gone.

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