Ron Paul won the debate — and I don’t necessarily mean the presidential debate that took place last week, but the most important debate now taking place in the Republican Party. Those who gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann high marks for their debate performances are not wrong. Both candidates exhibited that presidential “style” that is worth so much to pundits and voters. But what about substance? Who best represents the GOP’s current philosophy?

At the second debate of the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, Fox News’ Carl Cameron posed the following question to candidate Paul: “Congressman Paul, yet another question about electability: Do you have any?” The audience laughed, as did the other candidates. But Cameron’s condescending question did contain a valid point: What place was there in the 2008 GOP for a limited-government, antiwar Republican?

The GOP’s eventual nominee John McCain had many problems with the conservative base in the last election, not the least of which was his big government record. In McCain’s defense, the senator’s routine statism wasn’t that much different than that of President Bush. Luckily for McCain, the party agreed and rallied around his “Country First” platform of “100 years” in Iraq and certain war with Iran.

Try to imagine if McCain was running today. It’s now become a conservative consensus that the U.S. intervention in Libya is a bad idea. Candidate Newt Gingrich, a Bush Republican at heart yet deft enough to adapt, was for the Libyan war before he was against it. Populist candidate Herman Cain gave a list of reasons why Libya was wrongheaded. Bachmann proudly proclaimed her opposition to the Libyan intervention. And perhaps most amusing was Romney, who said that the military should not be used to fight for the independence of other nations. This was a complete reversal of his 2008 position when Romney thought that the primary purpose of the armed forces was to fight for the independence of other nations via his “No Apology” support for the Iraq War.

If the 2008 Republican primaries were based heavily on foreign policy, last week’s debate did not even broach the subject until 90 minutes into the two-hour event, and there were only two questions from the audience about it. The first was from a Navy veteran with three sons currently serving overseas. The concerned father wanted to know, with Osama bin Laden now dead, when U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan. The other audience question came from a man who wanted to know how America could afford to have hundreds of bases all over the world considering our debt crisis.

How many GOP voters in 2008 were asking when we might be bringing the troops home? How many would have even thought to question America’s global military footprint and tie it to spending? If Bush had intervened in Libya, would these Republican candidates have supported it? In the last election, would Romney have felt compelled to say that our military should be used more cautiously?

The reason foreign policy wasn’t discussed for most of the debate last week is because the 2012 GOP’s first concern — like much of the country — is the economy. But in 2008, Paul was warning Americans about an impending economic crisis. In fact, Paul’s argument has always been that America is going bankrupt due in large part to its foreign policy. The questions at last week’s debate relating to foreign policy were far more sympathetic to Paul’s long-held views than those of any other Republican candidate in 2008. The fiscal concerns discussed were a lot closer to what Paul has been talking about for three decades as his fellow and supposedly more “electable” Republicans laughed at such warnings.

Like Bob Dole in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and McCain in 2008, most candidates are quickly forgotten not simply because they lost, but because they weren’t philosophers. Their opinions change with the political wind, as evidenced by many of the candidates Monday night.

But who influences which way those winds might blow? The last real philosopher candidates to get the GOP’s nod — Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — had to change their party’s philosophy before winning any nominations or presidencies. This is instructive because it reminds us that changing hearts and minds is just as important, if not more so, than winning the next election.

Whether Ron Paul gets the nomination remains to be seen. Whether he is winning the most important debate before us today does not.

Jack Hunter co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Southern Avenger commentaries can be heard every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 AM WTMA.