Love him or hate him, few people until recently would deny that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has a unique brand as an independent, libertarian-leaning Republican, which he has successfully leveraged to national fame.
For a variety of reasons, Paul has failed to gain traction as a Republican presidential candidate. And his peevish and lackluster performances in the first three GOP debates did him no favors.
At the Republican debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, though, the old Paul was back: the guy who is steadfast and combative in his libertarianism, but in a likable way. The crowd ate it up.
On foreign policy, Paul stood by his insistence that the United States should engage Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a resolution to the war in Syria. He dismissed a no-fly zone in Syria as a reckless move that could lead to war with Russia. And playing to anti-interventionists in both parties, he noted that the proposal has the support of Hillary Clinton, as well as his Republican rivals.
“If you're ready for [a no-fly zone], be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq,” Paul warned.
“I don't want to see that happen. I think the first war in Iraq was a mistake,” Paul added, before being cut off by applause.
On fiscal policy, Paul was unapologetic about his plans shrink the government by starving it of revenue -- and unforgiving in his attacks on his rivals for deviating from conservative fiscal orthodoxy.
He called Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) proposed child care tax credit a “welfare transfer payment.”
Then he went further, claiming Rubio’s proposed increases in defense spending weren't conservative. “You can't be conservative if you're going to keep promoting programs you're not going to pay for," he said.
Rubio used the opening to attack Paul as a "total isolationist," but Paul didn't back down, giving as good as he got. It was far more effective than a somewhat similar exchange over surveillance between Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) during the first GOP debate in which Paul appeared flustered and outmatched.
At times, the resurgent, unabashedly libertarian Paul’s priorities were a little confusing. After ignoring energy policy for most of the debate, he responded to a question about how he would address climate change by declaring that his first act as president would be undoing President Barack Obama’s energy regulations.
That worked for him too, however. The audience applauded after his first line.
But the highlight of Paul’s performance had little to do with policy: He finally landed a knockout punch on his arch-nemesis Donald Trump.
Trump had easily deflected Paul’s parries in previous debates. But this time, when Trump filled his remarks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with China bashing, Paul saw a clear opening.
“Hey, Gerard, you know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal,” Paul told debate moderator Gerard Baker.
The moderators conceded the point and the crowd chuckled.
For once, Trump was the butt of the joke.
CORRECTION: This article was corrected to reflect that Paul addressed energy policy before his closing statement.
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