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Republicans Evolving on ISIS: Rand Paul takes tougher stance on terrorism

If there’s one thing that has distinguished Rand Paul as a likely presidential candidate, it’s his relentless skepticism toward military intervention overseas.

In a Republican Party more often defined by the John McCain wing of military muscularity, Paul has been staking out a more dovish position, hoping to connect with a war-weary public. His critics call that isolationism.

Just last week, the Kentucky senator declared in the Wall Street Journal that Hillary is too hawkish:

“To interventionists like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we would caution that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria created a haven for the Islamic State. We are lucky Mrs. Clinton didn't get her way and the Obama administration did not bring about regime change in Syria. That new regime might well be ISIS…Mrs. Clinton was also eager to shoot first in Syria before asking some important questions.”

But now Paul is, shall we say, modulating his rhetoric a bit. He says in a statement:

“If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”

Clearly, the senator wants to avoid any hint of being viewed as soft on ISIS. He’s never going to be Ted Cruz, who recently called for bombing ISIS “back to the Stone Age.” But it’s a dilemma that many Republicans (and some Democrats) are facing just as the Bush era of constant warfare seemed to be fading.

And here’s Mitt Romney joining the debate with a Washington Post op-ed:

“Russia invades, China bullies, Iran spins centrifuges, the Islamic State (a terrorist threat ‘beyond anything that we’ve seen,’ according to the defense secretary ) threatens — and Washington slashes the military.”

The tone of the political argument is shifting. As a Post front-pager put it:

“A roiling national debate over how to deal with the radical Islamic State and other global hot spots has prompted a sudden shift in Republican politics, putting a halt to the anti-interventionist mood that had been gaining credence in the party…

“Libertarian-leaning conservatives gained momentum in part by criticizing the Iraq war and the growth of government on Bush’s watch in the form of the National Security Agency’s aggressive use of domestic surveillance.

“Their heightened clout led to clashes with prominent GOP hawks such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who openly challenged Paul’s worldview as weak and dangerous.”

On these questions, Paul has a paper trail. An earlier Journal piece by the senator was headlined: “America Shouldn't Choose Sides in Iraq's Civil War/ Obama has made mistakes but so did Bush by invading. There's no good case for U.S. military intervention now.”

In last week’s op-ed, Paul wrote: “Our Middle Eastern policy is unhinged, flailing about to see who to act against next, with little thought to the consequences. This is not a foreign policy.” And he didn’t spare his own party:

“The same is true of hawkish members of my own party. Some said it would be ‘catastrophic’ if we failed to strike Syria. What they were advocating for then -- striking down Assad's regime -- would have made our current situation even worse, as it would have eliminated the only regional counterweight to the ISIS threat…A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe.”

Paul’s latest comments have triggered some flip-flop comments on the right. Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin says:

“Quite simply, Obama’s presidency is a lesson in the dangers of the outlook Paul espoused until he decided it was better to destroy the Islamic State after all.”

And Red State declares:

“The American people deserve at least one presidential candidate who has the strength of his/her convictions, whatever they might be, and Rand Paul is not that candidate.”

Tough stuff. And obviously, these problems aren’t black and white. It is possible to believe that America was too quick to make war in the Middle East and also that ISIS is a threat that needs to be addressed.

But for Rand Paul, who has built a brand as the politician most wary of foreign entanglements, his new approach risks muddling his message.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.