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Every insurgent candidate likes to think he has an establishment somewhere quaking in its boots. But in the case of Senator Rand Paul, the fear seems to be very real.

This isn’t evident from watching cable news, where well-credentialed Republicans tend to regard Paul with equal parts curiosity and dismissal. You have to skirt behind the scenes, to some of the more in-depth political coverage, to get a good view of the freakout.

Thus this morning:

New York Rep. Pete King knows he’s a long shot for the GOP presidential nomination. He has little national following, no campaign organization, and must constantly remind people he’s considering a run to keep his name in the mix at all.

But if King doesn’t make it to the White House, he’ll happily settle for another victory: Making sure Rand Paul doesn’t get there either.

And it’s not just Peter King:

In interviews with msnbc, King and [Fox News contributor John] Bolton each made clear that Paul’s rise within the party loomed large in their thinking.

There’s little precedent for this in recent political contests. Candidates weren’t jumping into the 2012 race because they wanted to counter Rick Perry’s looser immigration position or Rick Santorum’s disregard for libertarianism. And the GOP establishment isn’t tossing and turning at night over Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core or Chris Christie’s signing his state’s own DREAM Act; indeed, one of Republican governors’ constantly touted strengths is their willingness to experiment on domestic policy.

But ask a few questions about forever war and invasive surveillance, and elite Republicans line up around the block for a chance to destroy you.

Problem is, Paul hasn’t gone down easily. He’s statistically tied with Scott Walker to win the Iowa caucus, according to a recent Des Moines Register poll, and he’s grabbed boldfaced headlines for his efforts to reach out to black and Millennial voters, something GOP bigwigs encourage but can’t ever seem to pull off.

Hence the fear.

I’ve mentioned the 2016 race to multiple people I know who work in Republican politics here in Washington, only to have them reflexively start fretting about Paul. You would think he was Republicans’ primary antagonist in 2016, rather than Hillary Clinton.

If the party can’t stop Paul, they seem determined to isolate him. With Scott Walker’s refusal last week to rule out ground troops in Syria, and with nearly every other GOP presidential hopeful—Perry, Christie, Rubio, Graham, Bolton, King, Santorum—having taken a swing at Paul, it’s quite likely that the Kentucky senator will be the only candidate on that debate stage who favors a more modest foreign policy.

And yet still the fear remains—and for good reason. “The one candidate that could potentially bring in new Republicans to the field would be someone like Rand Paul,” a former Obama staffer said last year.

It’s amazing what a little dissent can do.

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