WASHINGTON (AP) — For better or worse, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul now stands apart from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
He thinks it's for the better, his and the nation's.
More than a year in advance of the next election, most Republican lawmakers say it's for the worse, theirs and the country's.
Paul places "a higher priority on his fundraising and his ambitions than on the security of the nation," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Sunday night. He spoke after the tea party favorite had blocked Senate renewal of the National Security Agency's bulk phone record collection, the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that the agency's powers had been curtailed by Congress.
A few hours later, Paul rebutted. "Yesterday, I forced the expiration of the NSA's illegal spying program. Contribute $5 now to show your support," his presidential campaign tweeted to supporters.
There's a history between the two men. In an institution where senators routinely refer to one another as "my good friend," McCain once said Paul's views on national security qualified him as one of the "wacko birds" in the party. An apology soon followed, but the two men are separated by a wide gulf when it comes to foreign policy.
In this case, the occasionally rebellious McCain speaks for many in his party, and the sometimes go-it-alone Paul largely for himself.
That's particularly the case in the competition for the Republican presidential nomination, a race already crowded with candidates.
"Hopefully, Rand Paul won't prevail. ... The Senate will do what it must do, which is to keep our defenses up," former Sen. Rick Santorum said in a weekend interview with Fox News. The presidential hopeful added that as a senator he "voted for the Patriot Act and would vote for it again."
He sharpened his position on Monday. "You know, Rand, this is not about you," he said in a radio interview with Fox.
Another contender, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, was asked during the day if Paul's position would be successful in a Republican primary. "I do not," he said. "I think people want balance, they want protection when it comes to civil liberties, but I think those are clearly things that are addressed in renewing the Patriot Act."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, said Paul's views on the NSA's powers were wrong. Speaking in Tennessee over the weekend, he suggested that if they were put into effect, the country would be less secure.
"What I admire most about my brother was he kept us safe," Bush said. "And I believe people will respect him for a long time because of that."
But Paul's immediate political accomplishment is apparent. He has methodically used his stand on civil liberties and his seat in the Senate to set himself apart from the other competitors in the race for the GOP nomination.
His position may reap support from some conservatives. It assuredly will also make him a target for criticism when the candidates hold their first debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. Longer-term, it will be up to the Iowa caucus goers and the voters in early primary states to decide how far his strategy takes him.
But while Paul has staked his White House hopes on the issue, party elders would just as soon he not endanger the Republicans' hard-won Senate majority at the same time.
In interviews over the winter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted the incoming GOP majority to reassure the voting public, not scare it.
Since then, he's prioritized legislation with solid support in public opinion polls, most recently a trade bill and a measure to help the victims of sex trafficking. A more controversial attempt to carry out a balanced budget blueprint won't see the light of day, a decision designed to blunt Democratic charges that the GOP wants to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare and other benefit programs.
Republicans also retreated on their vow to reverse Obama's immigration policy earlier this year, opting not to trigger a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security at a time of heightened terror concerns.
In the same vein, it's a safe bet that shutting down a part of the NSA's anti-terrorism efforts, even temporarily, was not on the agenda for McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
Frustration is evident. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, a member of the intelligence committee, said he told a closed-door meeting of fellow GOP senators on Sunday that Paul was misrepresenting the program.
"I wasn't trying to call him a liar, I was basically trying to say that what he has said is false," Coats said. "I think I was frustrated because over the past year I have invited him four times to come to the intelligence committee" for a briefing. "But he turned down all those opportunities."
Later, rank-and-file Republican senators went to extraordinary lengths to dissociate themselves from Paul's decision to force a lapse in the NSA's program of bulk phone record collection and other surveillance methods.
When he got up to speak, they walked out of the Senate chamber en masse to emphasize their disagreement.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this story