Rand Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll for the second consecutive year, but did he avoid the contentious subject of foreign policy?

That seemed to be the consensus in media reports on his speech, with a few exceptions. While Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz made the case for a muscular American role in a turbulent world, Paul didn’t mention the globe’s hotspots as he crafted an alternative.

Instead the Kentucky senator told interviewers not read too much into his lack of chest-beating over things like the crisis in Ukraine. “I think almost all factions of the Republican Party from the most hawkish to the least hawkish have agreed really there isn’t much of a military option here but we should condemn absolutely and unequivocally the aggression of Russia by invading sovereign territory,” Paul said.

“My position on foreign policy and the arena of national defense is that it’s the most important thing that the federal government does,” Paul contended, echoing a line from his CPAC speech. “So anybody that wants to imply that my beliefs on foreign policy or defense are any less strong than theirs really misinterprets both my position and history.”

Certainly Cruz wants to imply this, even as he cites both Rand and Ron Paul in his speeches. At CPAC the Tea Party senator from Texas triangulated on foreign policy between the younger Paul and John McCain, aligning himself with “a third point on the triangle,” Reagan. Cruz went a step further on ABC’s “This Week,” saying flatly, “I don’t agree with [Rand Paul] on foreign policy.”

“Cruz is making a bet that Paul’s more libertarian positions on issues like non-interventionism aren’t a mainstream opinion,” writes the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis. “So he will set up shop just on the other side of Paul.”

If the 2016 Republican primaries—or at least the subset of that nominating contest that determines the conservative alternative to the GOP establishment candidate—is decided by the toughest foreign-policy rhetoric, Cruz may well be betting correctly. But Paul isn’t trying to fight on Cruz’s terrain.

Paul went to a mainstream conservative gathering and launched a blistering attack on surveillance, warrantless searches, drone strikes, executive abridgements of civil liberties—that is, the way George W. Bush waged the war on terror and the tactics most of Paul’s opponents in the Republican Party would still employ today.

Rather than get into a shouting match with more hawkish Republicans over Russia—though he has condemned Vladimir Putin as often as he has tweaked the thinly-veiled Cold War nostalgia masquerading as foreign-policy thought in some corners of the right—he is making his case from a strong, limited-government conservative perspective.

What Paul has been saying ever since he filibustered John Brennan’s CIA nomination over drones is that the Lindsey Graham view of foreign policy—a permanent war in which the American homeland is a battlefield—is incompatible with constitutionally limited government. You can have a national-security state of that scope or you can have the Bill of Rights, but you can’t have both.

You also can’t have a balanced federal budget without broad-based tax increases if you are regularly conducting decade-long $1 trillion wars of choice. As Nigel Lawson memorably observed, to govern is to choose.

And while some Republicans may prefer tough talk about Putin or the ayatollahs to Paul’s more nuanced commentary, there is an obvious reply: rhetoric aside, what would a Cruz or a Rubio really do differently? Such rhetoric matters, of course, and there are usually non-military options available, like economic sanctions.

But Paul’s critics should be obliged to tell us if they want war against any of the half-dozen or so countries whose governments they castigate. If not, does their position really differ that much from Paul’s? If they do, is Paul really the Republican holding a non-mainstream opinion?

If Reagan is the golden mean, which countries did he invade to set in motion the end of the Cold War and the toppling of the Berlin Wall? And which of the limited interventions he did support, besides Grenada, are still counted among his crowning foreign-policy achievements today?

Maybe such arguments won’t be satisfying in the emotionally charged environment of the Republican primaries. But among the conservative activists at CPAC, at least, Paul beat Cruz by 20 points and the seventh-place Rubio by 25.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?