Can Rand Paul use the Cleveland debate to make himself relevant?

Rand Paul has become a diminished force in the presidential race, to the point that we have wondered “where did Rand Paul go?” Thursday’s debate will give Paul an opportunity to roar back into the consciousness of Republican voters. But to do so, Dave Weigel of the Washington Post suggests, he will have to take a page out of his father’s playbook and swing for the fences as an ardent “non-interventionist.”

Paul seems up for it. He says the debate will be between him and people who “want to blow up the world” and “send half a million of your sons and daughters back” to Iraq.

The problem for Paul may be finding such people to debate. Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most outspoken hawk in the field, won’t be on the stage. Neither, it seems, will Rick Santorum with whom Paul’s father clashed over foreign policy in 2011-12.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are more hawkish than Paul. However, as Weigel notes, both opposed air strikes against Syria. Neither was around when the Senate voted to go to war with Iraq (John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both voted yes) and Cruz wasn’t around when the Senate approved no-fly zones in Libya.

For me, perhaps the most interesting question when it comes to the foreign policy portion of the debate is where Donald Trump will stand. Based on some of his comments about how to combat ISIS, Trump may be prepared to play the part of “mad bomber,” though not boots-on-the-ground interventionist.

If I were Rand Paul, I’d try to force Trump’s hand, knowing that he’s unlikely to embrace Paul’s brand of semi-isolationism. If Trump takes a hard line, Paul may be able to win back some of the support that many believe he has lost to the tycoon. If Trump tries to hedge, he may begin to sound like just another politician. If he says something crazy, he may set himself back (though not necessarily).

As is the case with Paul, Trump’s biggest critic — Colonel Graham — will not be on the stage. Rick Perry might be (apparently he’s in 11th place at the minute), but it’s not clear that he’s spoiling for another fight with Trump at this point.

The most serious candidates almost certainly aren’t. Why risk alienating the 20 percent of the GOP voters who support Trump and maximize the chances that he will run against you in the general election, when it’s quite possible that the Trump phenomenon will fall of its own weight by the end of the year?

In this context, Rand Paul may be the candidate most likely to do do battle with Trump on Thursday night. To me, it looks like the smart move.