Rand Paul is “El Hombre!”

Rand Paul isn’t rehearsed. He’s plainspoken. He rarely reads his speeches and sounds a lot like that unassuming guy we meet at the local supermarket who’s carrying a clipboard. You know the type — the guy who wants you to sign a petition to support a law, repeal a law or save an animal of some kind. The senator from Kentucky is by all outward appearances very un-senatorial and unsensational.

But you can never judge a book by its cover. And despite outward appearances, Rand Paul may be the most powerful voice in the Senate today. Why? Because he can do what no other Republican can do: he can unify. At a time when Republicans seem as splintered as the Democrats did in the ‘80s, Paul seems more capable of bridging the divide on big issues than almost anyone else.

This week, on immigration, Paul has taken the GOP where few —including me— ever imagined it could go: a real public discussion about allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. for good. Even Marco Rubio, the Senate’s highest profile Latino and the seeming “Golden Boy” for 2016, has hemmed and hawed on immigration and failed to substantively distinguish himself. And prominent pro-immigration Republicans like Newt Gingrich couldn’t move the needle the way that Rand Paul has in just one week.

Let’s remember that just six months ago, the prevailing Republican thinking on immigration was, essentially, “we want you to leave.” In the now infamous words and muddled philosophy of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, “the answer is self-deportation.”

Say what you will about Romney’s words and how they may not have been chosen wisely, but you can’t say they didn’t work for their intended purpose. In fact, they propelled him to the nomination by providing the GOP base with just the amount of red meat that he needed to prove he was not a weak-kneed liberal in Republican clothing.

In October, after the nomination was locked up and in response to the president’s public stance on the DREAM Act, Mitt Romney —seemingly reluctantly— said he’d support the DREAM Act too. But “self-deportation” was still part of the picture and still in everyone’s mind.

Imagine the kind of conviction, courage and credibility it would have taken for Mitt Romney to have stood up at the time and said —clearly and unequivocally— that undocumented immigrants deserve a pathway to citizenship.

Those three C’s —courage, conviction and credibility— are exactly what Rand Paul is demonstrating. And he’s proving it not just with his own words, but with the words that others are saying about him.

I am writing specifically about the Tea Party, the movement from which Paul authentically hails. Here is what Tea Party leaders are saying about Rand Paul’s immigration position, a position that I believe —if taken by anyone else in the GOP— would have garnered criticism and consternation.

Sal Russo, the founder of the Tea Party Express, doesn’t seem at all bothered by Paul’s backing of a pathway to citizenship. He says Paul is still his “favorite of the group.” And he is praising him for his “willingness to stand up and take a principled stand” on immigration.

It’s surprising, considering that the Tea Party has viewed similar statements by other politicians as “a call for amnesty for illegal aliens.”

But Russo seems to have no problem with Paul telling America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants that, “we will find a place for you.”

In the past, words like those spoken by Paul last Tuesday would have gotten him compared to the likes of über-liberals like Al Gore (or worse — Barack Obama), but Russo in interviews says that he sees Paul more in the mold of Ronald Reagan:

“A lot of people voted for Reagan that didn’t agree with him on everything, but he spoke boldly,” Russo said. “That’s what we are sort of applauding with Rand Paul… It’s refreshing to have someone raise an issue in a clear and unambiguous way. We think it needs to happen on the fiscal issues.”

It no doubt helps that Rand Paul is coming off from his filibustering victory on the issue of drones. Getting the Obama administration to be accountable has raised his profile and allowed him to make a principled stand on immigration. His willingness to stand up for what he believed on the drone issue earned him respect — and that is paying dividends right now.

Russo’s words are more than a passing gesture of respect for Paul — they’re a full-blown endorsement of immigration reform. He goes on to say, “People are in this country a long time and they are not legal. We have to get them legal in some way in a process that gets people legal that are here… We should do it because it’s the right thing. We need to reform immigration because we need a system that works,” Russo said.

And Russo is not alone. Matt Kibbe, the CEO of Freedom Works, another visible Tea Party group, agrees.

Rand Paul has done what the 2012 Republican nominee for president failed to do: take a stance on immigration that makes sense, appeals to Latinos and doesn’t alienate the Tea Party base. If Romney had pulled this off, he’d be president today.

Can you imagine any other Republican getting this kind of Tea Party support on an issue as contentious as immigration? Frankly, I can’t.

I think it comes back to the three C’s, and Paul’s authenticity that he believes what he says, and says what he means —like the guy with the petition at the supermarket— and is not a “politician” whose positions are based on polls.

It is also the fact that Paul has grasped the reality of the immigration issue, and the essence of the argument. Talking about fences or deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants who are integrated into our economy and society may make good sound bites, but it doesn’t make much sense.

These 11 million undocumented immigrants who have come to the U.S., worked here and raised children here, only want the chance to prove themselves worthy of staying. They don’t care what form it comes in, or whether it’s called a pathway or legal residency or citizenship. They just want to stop looking over their shoulders as they live in the pursuit of happiness.

While other politicians argue about the form the path to citizenship should take, what it looks like —whether it’s a highway, a cobblestone road or one with speed bumps and checkpoints— and as they debate semantics over what to call it, Paul gets to the point. And he’s
right because the fact is, for now, it doesn’t matter.

These people will walk on whatever path to citizenship we build, whether it’s quick and smooth or long and difficult. They’ll even walk on glass for the right to stay in America. Rand Paul knows that and is by far the best of all Republicans at communicating this message to the rest of the party and the country. And so when it comes to the rest of the GOP, Rand Paul is right now, without a doubt, “El Hombre!”

This piece originally appeared on FoxNews.com