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Rand Paul fights off GOP hawks at New Hampshire 2016 summit

The GOP presidential hopeful has made his unorthodox foreign policy and national security views a centerpiece of his candidacy at New Hampshire's 2016 summit.
Rand Paul arrives to the D.W. Diner in Merrimack, N.H., April 18, 2015. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Rand Paul arrives to the D.W. Diner in Merrimack, N.H., April 18, 2015.

NASHUA, New Hampshire -- Which one of these Republican candidates is not like the other? When it comes to foreign policy and national security, the clear answer is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- and he wants New Hampshire voters to know it.

"There's a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more," Paul told the crowd at the New Hampshire GOP Leadership Summit on Saturday.

"The other Republicans will criticize Obama or Hillary Clinton on foreign policy but they would have done the same thing ten times over."'

The high-profile kickoff to the first-in the-nation Republican primary contest features almost every declared and undeclared presidential hopeful in the field. Friday’s lineup included Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, among others. Saturday’s lineup is set to include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

Paul played up his non-interventionist take on foreign affairs and libertarian philosophy on civil rights for a crowd that had just heard speaker after speaker run hard in the opposite direction. Still, the Kentucky senator joined the other candidates in criticizing Hillary Clinton’s handling of security in Benghazi ahead of an attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012.

"I think that her dereliction of duty, her not doing her job, her not providing security for our forces, for our diplomatic missions should forever preclude her from holding higher office," Paul said. 

RELATED: Rand Paul’s past continues to haunt him

Unlike his rivals, however, he pivoted from his Clinton attack to ask, "why the hell did we ever go into Libya in the first place?"

“It is something, if you watch closely, that will separate me from [the other] Republicans,” Paul said. “The other Republicans will criticize Obama or Hillary Clinton on foreign policy but they would have done the same thing ten times over.”

Paul, who urged Republicans to defend “the entire bill of rights,” dove into a lengthy defense of the right to an attorney and trial for Americans suspected of terrorism -- not exactly a popular pitch for many in the party's defense wing.

“We had this debate in the Senate – you’ll hear from some of these people, when you hear the loudest critics of me these are these people -- one of them said ‘Well, when they ask for a lawyer we just tell them to shut up,’” Paul said. “Really? That’s the kind of discourse we're going to have in this country?”

The remark was a reference to Graham, one of several especially hawkish potential presidential candidates who have been highly critical of Paul’s take on national security. Two other notable voices in the anti-Paul camp, Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and New York Rep. Peter King, spoke on Friday, while the other major candidates signaled major disagreements in their own speeches.

Rubio, for example, defended the NSA surveillance that Paul opposes during his New Hampshire swing, and assailed the Obama administration for its rapprochement with Cuba, which Rubio has slammed as a capitulation to human rights abusers. He and Bush both criticized Obama's willingness to negotiate with Iran as well, an approach Paul has generally supported, rather than rely on further sanctions. 

Paul has moved his positions somewhat more in line with Republican orthodoxy in the run-up to his campaign -- he’s backed military strikes to destroy the Islamic State, for example, and recently signed on to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s letter to Iranian leaders informing them that Congress can override Obama’s negotiations -- two moves that irked some of his libertarian supporters. Nonetheless, it’s clear that he views his general tendency toward the doves as fundamental to his campaign rather than a sideshow. If his speech in Nashua was any indication, the GOP debate on national security will be intense.