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'What the hell happened to Rand Paul?'

Now that the presidential contest is well under way, Rand Paul has gone missing — both figuratively and literally — from a big part of the 2016 conversation.
Republican presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters).
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) waits before addressing a legislative luncheon held as part of the \"Road to Majority\" conference in Washington Jun. 18, 2015. 

Just a year ago, if he wasn't considered a leading prospective presidential candidate, he certainly was an interesting one — given his libertarianism and less-hawkish views on foreign policy. But now that the presidential contest is well under way, Rand Paul has gone missing — both figuratively and literally — from a big part of the 2016 conversation.

"What the hell happened to Rand Paul?" asked prominent conservative writer Erick Erickson.

But Paul's campaign team argues that this absence from the campaign conversation is by design — to play the long delegate game, and to avoid sharing the crowded space with other Republican presidential candidates.

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For Paul, there have been two kinds of absences. The first has been away from the candidate "cattle calls" other presidential hopefuls have attended.

For instance, back in June, seven GOP hopefuls (Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham) were in Iowa attending Senator Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride, but Paul ditched the event to be in New Hampshire to host four “Stand with Rand” meet and greets across the Granite State. 

Later in the month, Walker, Perry, Huckabee, Carson, Santorum, Pataki were in Colorado at the Western Conservative Summit, but Paul was fundraising and meeting with winners of his campaign’s “Hackathon” in Monterey, California. 

And this Saturday, Paul will be a no-show — again — at the Family Leader summit in Iowa, where Walker, Rubio, Carson, Ted Cruz, Huckabee and Donald Trump will speak.  Instead, Paul will be attending a fundraiser in Houston.

Why the different campaign scheduling? According to multiple conversations with the Paul campaign, the candidate is playing the long delegate game — thus campaigning in states beyond the early contests of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Indeed, advisers point to his non-traditional campaign stops in Michigan, Colorado, Illinois and California.

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The second absence for Paul has been away from the political conversation of the day, especially on subjects tricky for the libertarian-leaning candidate who wants to reach out to minorities, and who holds less hawkish foreign-policy views in an increasingly hawkish Republican Party.

He was late to weigh in on removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds (he eventually said it should be removed); on the Supreme Court’s opinion legalizing gay marriage (he eventually said government shouldn’t be in the marriage business at all); and on President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal (he eventually said he opposed it). 

Yet Paul’s team says its strategy is standing apart from the pack.  While the responses to various events from rival Republican candidates get lumped together in articles and television segments, the campaign believes that Paul’s responses (despite being delayed) get their own coverage — without having to share the page or screen time with rivals.

It also stresses that there’s an advantage to taking time to respond to complicated issues.

"No one takes bolder stands than Senator Rand Paul,” said Doug Stafford, the Paul campaign’s chief strategist. “Whether it's scrapping the entire tax code, taking on the Washington machine, filibustering for his principles, Sen. Rand Paul has led on issue after issue during his time in DC.” 

Stafford added, “He also believes in being thoughtful, reading bills or decisions, and generally not reducing complicated policy matters to knee-jerk reactions or bumper-sticker solutions. There's something to be said for making sure he has both the right diagnosis and prescription on an issue, instead of racing to see who can tweet about it first."

RELATED: Chris Christie takes a veiled swipe at Rand Paul over Patriot Act

Still, maybe Paul’s biggest challenge in the GOP presidential field is being considered a more dovish foreign-policy candidate in an increasingly hawkish Republican Party.

In fact, an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that the top priority for national GOP primary voters was national security and terrorism — ahead of job creation and the deficit.

“The issue set for him hasn't been good,” said a GOP operative from a rival campaign. “More than health care, the president’s record on foreign policy is one thing that really unifies Republicans.” 

In other words, a Rand Paul in the Age of ISIS might not have the same punch inside his party that Paul in the Age of Edward Snowden did back in 2013 and 2014.