LOUISVILLE — It's not accurate to say that incoming U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy took a shot at Rand Paul in the Kentucky senator's back yard.
It was much more like the senator's front yard, and it might as well have been the Pauls' kitchen.
But there was McCarthy in Bowling Green on Saturday, elected to his new position about a month ago, hesitating slightly before answering that yes, he could support Paul if the senator became the Republican presidential nominee in the 2016 race for the White House.
But it was certainly no endorsement, and Paul's allies might be forgiven for viewing McCarthy's caveat for supporting the senator as a slight given where he was when he expressed his reservations.
"(If) Rand Paul's the nominee, I could clearly support Rand Paul," McCarthy said. "I think Rand Paul's got a lot of good ideas. I differ (with) him on foreign policy."
That McCarthy disagrees with Paul on foreign policy seems to put him in line with just about every other Washington Republican.
What Paul and his team believe is that it also puts them at odds with the American people.
After two elections that found voters focused almost entirely on the economy, the national security battles of the 2002 midterms and 2004 presidential election relegated to the history books, Republicans like McCarthy believe that national security is set to come back in a big way in the 2016 race.
As Paul increasingly wears the frontrunner's jersey in that race, the bullseye on that jersey is getting bigger.
And with a commercial airliner being shot out of the sky, Libya and Iraq growing more unstable by the day and Israel expanding its ground attack in Gaza, it looks more and more like the battle for the Republican nomination will return foreign policy to the forefront of the debate.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, Republican New York Congressman Peter King and, most recently, Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all assailed Paul as an isolationist, cut from the same cloth as his father and unwilling to fight — or send others to fight — to maintain the United States' role as a super power.
When asked if Paul can overcome doubts within the GOP establishment about his willingness to take a more hawkish stance, McCarthy said "that's what campaigns are all about."
"I see what's happening in the world today," McCarthy said. "I do not think if you're an isolationist... I do not think that's a strength for America. I think there's a reason why America should lead. I think it makes the world safer. It makes America safer. I think being president of the United States, you should be strong."
In between his efforts to grow the Republican brand with minorities, working with Democratic senators on criminal justice reform and setting up the pieces necessary if he decides to go ahead with a presidential run, Paul has been on a different kind of campaign lately.
In op-eds and appearances on news shows, Paul has been waging a campaign to fight back against the idea, put forward by many who are supposed to be on the same team, that Paul is an isolationist.
In a brief chat with the Lexington Herald-Leader Monday, Paul was asked about McCarthy's comments, and he replied that "people probably don't know enough about my foreign policy to comment yet."
"I think that more Republicans hear about it, the less they'll find objectionable," Paul said.
The senator has a tall order ahead of him as his run could set up a battle for the soul of a party that not long ago was led by neoconservatives.
And trying to run on a nuanced foreign policy platform has traditionally been a kiss of death in races where it's much easier to sell black and white than gray.
Ask Secretary of State John Kerry how he voted on the Iraq War resolution. Then ask him how easy it is to sell nuance in the middle of a campaign.
Paul doesn't see his positions as revolutionary or politically risky.
In fact, he thinks it's the folks who are calling him an isolationist who are out of step with the rest of the country.
"I think there's a disconnect between the American people and Washington," Paul said Monday. "Washington often lags a decade behind American opinion. I think I'm actually where the people are, and it's going to take everybody else awhile to figure this out."
To make his case, Paul points to Iraq, noting the neocon voices who are saying the U.S. should send troops, or in some cases, never should have left.
"They're outliers," Paul said. "They are somewhere on the extreme end of the spectrum because that's not where the majority of the American people are."
Paul might be onto something, but that certainly doesn't mean the rest of his party's leaders agree.
"I feel as our friends don't trust us, and our enemies don't fear us," McCarthy said. "And that becomes an unsafe world. I believe foreign policy will be a big element of whoever becomes the nominee. A lot of people have a lot of different ideas. Sometimes you become more educated on them, you become stronger or have a better belief. Maybe there's some things in Rand's policy that he has not seen that he might become stronger.
"Whoever gets through the primary, I think foreign policy will be a very strong element."
What's telling at this point is that both Paul and his critics think that's a good thing.
"When you talk about whether someone's an interventionist or someone's an isolationist, they're from both side's pejoratives," Paul said. "If someone's calling you one or the other, they're doing it for their own purposes basically."
Leading the senator to say again: "I think the American people are where I am on this."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.