The dueling responses to the State of the Union address by Marco Rubio and Rand Paul tonight provide reporters with a ready-made story of Tea Party-aligned conservatives vying with one another in what many will view as a preview of future political rivalry ahead of the 2016 primaries. There is some truth to this story, but it exaggerates Rubio’s connections with Tea Partiers and ignores the most important thing separating the two politicians. Something else that happened today that could end up defining the opposition between the two much more sharply, namely the Armed Services Committee’s vote to report Hagel’s nomination favorably to the full Senate on a party-line vote. Paul isn’t going to criticize Rubio directly, and will focus his attention on countering Obama, which is why the speeches tonight are mostly a sideshow and won’t tell us very much. The floor vote on Hagel’s nomination on Thursday Friday will matter much more.

Whatever problems there were with Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech last week, he put down a marker and identified himself as a realist. Indeed, many parts of Sen. Paul’s speech read as a more effective defense of Hagel’s past positions than Hagel was willing to provide at his confirmation hearing. The campaign against Hagel represents a concerted effort to write realists like Hagel out of the GOP and to demonize them as “fringe” figures. On Thursday Friday, Sen. Paul has the opportunity to show that Ted Cruz and others like him don’t speak for all Tea Partiers, conservatives, or Republicans by voting to confirm Hagel. A vote against Hagel is a vote to condemn many of the arguments Sen. Paul made last week to irrelevance. “Pro-Israel” hawks and hard-liners are looking for reasons to reject Paul in spite of his overtures to them, and sooner or later they will reject him regardless of how he votes on Thursday. As their treatment of Hagel has shown, they won’t tolerate anything short of absolute conformity, so there’s no long-term future in trying to win them over. In the end, they will always prefer Rubio, who happily endorses their entire agenda. Paul’s most likely supporters in the GOP are those that have recoiled from the disgraceful way Hagel has been treated. This week he has a chance to represent them in the Senate, and he shouldn’t squander it.