Rand Paul

Analysis: Rand Paul finally finds a groove, but he remains a long shot for the nomination

As Fox Business News was cutting away to commercial almost an hour into Tuesday night's Republican debate, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul could be seen walking toward the moderators.

The debate was almost halfway over, and Paul had spoken little, having barely met the polling criteria to be on the edge of the stage with the seven other Republicans vying for the nomination.

Paul, it seemed, wanted a word with the moderators about the amount of time he was allowed to speak, and it seemed to work.

For Kentucky's junior senator, it was a story of two halves, and in the second half, the senator seemed to finally find a groove.

"The old, feisty Rand Paul showed up last night," said Rob Johnson, a senior adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's two presidential campaigns. "Unlike the last debate, folks actually noticed he was on the stage."

Feisty is a good word to describe Paul's performance, but unlike previous attempts to stand out in a crowded field by battling Donald Trump or Chris Christie, Paul found his stride by staying faithful to his political ideology, engaging Marco Rubio on defense spending and attacking the Federal Reserve.

"This was one of Rand Paul's better performances, and he made the best use of the additional time and attention he received during the debate," said Kevin Madden, a top aide to Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

It was a marked change from the last debate, hosted by CNBC, when it was difficult not to feel sorry for the senator, especially when the debate's moderators went to fellow U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for a question about auditing the Federal Reserve. They might as well have asked Cruz what it was like to have curly hair.

For most of the year, Paul has been desperately trying to find a message that works, enlisting his father — three-time presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul — to help him shape and spread his libertarian message.

The senator has performed a number of stunts in an effort to gain attention in a crowded field that has passed him by, most memorably his self-described "dumb ass" live stream of a day on the campaign trail that earned him more mockery than support.

But nothing Paul was doing seemed to be working. The minimum a candidate could poll and make it on to the debate stage was 2.5 percent, and that's exactly where the senator registered.

But last week in Kentucky, Paul, the liberty candidate, was liberated with the defeat of state Auditor Adam Edelen, a young, charismatic Democrat who seemed intent on running against Paul and running to his right on national security issues in a state that is home to Fort Campbell and Fort Knox.

With Edelen defeated and sidelined for next year, Paul was free to take his whacks at Rubio over defense spending, blasting the new favorite of the establishment for not being fiscally conservative.

After Rubio dusted off the criticism of Paul as an "isolationist," Paul shot back: "Marco, Marco, Marco. How is it conservative to add a trillion dollar expenditure for the federal government that you're not paying for?"

"You cannot be a conservative if you're going to keep promoting new programs that you're not going to pay for," Paul said.

Paul even got in a twofer defense of coal and shot at Kentucky Democrats when he was pressed by the moderators for his affirmative vote on a Senate resolution that declares global warming is real and being caused by humans.

Leaning in to the war on coal theme that has helped drive President Barack Obama's approval ratings into the cellar in Kentucky, Paul said that "he's devastated my state."

"I say the president's not only destroying Kentucky, he's destroying the Democrat Party down there because nobody wants to associate with him," Paul said.

Though Paul was able to finally articulate a conservative libertarian message, he didn't necessarily do so at the expense of the candidates with whom he battled.

Both Rubio and Cruz handled their responses just fine, embracing a muscular foreign policy and well-funded military in ways that are almost certain to be more palatable to Republican primary voters than Paul's attacks on runaway defense spending.

And though Paul won widespread praise for his performance, it's still very hard to imagine that it was enough for him to bypass Rubio, Trump or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

"Rand Paul did well enough to maybe move up from 9th place to 8th place," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney's campaigns. "The problem for all the candidates not named Trump or Carson is that the fundamentals of the race have remained pretty static through all four debates thus far. The outsiders remain firmly in charge."

Said Johnson: "It was a good performance for him, but being the smallest fish in the biggest pond isn't always fun. A decent night but tough sledding on a big mountain going forward."

It is unlikely that Tuesday night's performance will suddenly catapult Paul to the top of the polls, but he will probably get some help on the fundraising circuit.

Beyond that, it's hard to say what, if any, benefits Paul will reap from his strong showing.

"The question ... is whether it will be enough," Madden said. "His best performance is coming alongside other strong performances from Carson, Cruz and Rubio. A good performance doesn't necessarily equal a standout performance, and the standout part is really what's needed in a field this crowded."

But if nothing else, Paul's debate showing coupled with Edelen's loss has provided the senator with something his campaign has been missing for months — a reason to keep going.

For how long and to what end, only Paul seems to know.