WHEN A WALK-BACK BECOMES A SPRINT…. It all started with a simple, 11-word question: “Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” The question was posed by the editors of the Louisville Courier-Journal to Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky.

The answer proved problematic — Paul says he’s opposed to discrimination, but also opposes laws that impose restrictions on free enterprise. The Civil Rights Act went too far, Paul argued, when it mandated requirements on private entities. That’s what he told Courier-Journal, NPR, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and it’s consistent with what he wrote in 2002 when he articulated his opposition to the Fair Housing Act for the same reasons.

Indeed, Rachel specifically asked Paul if a private business should be able to refuse service to black people. The Republican candidate replied, “Yes.”

And then the evolution of Rand Paul kicked into overdrive.

Over the course of 24 hours, Paul went from opposing the Civil Rights Act to opposing repeal of the Civil Rights Act to considering the Civil Rights Act settled law to actually supporting the legislation he said he would have opposed.

[Paul] said he would have voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act if he were in the Senate at the time, calling the racial climate at the time “a stain on the South and our history.”

“There was an overriding problem in the South that was so big that it did require federal intervention in the Sixties,” he said. “The Southern states weren’t correcting it, and there was a need for federal intervention.”

Presented again with the original question that got him in trouble in the first place, the Kentucky Republican said, “Yes, I would have voted yes” on the Civil Rights Act.

As political flip-flops go, Rand Paul’s reversal is one for the books. “Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” He had a very specific answer before yesterday, which he’d articulated on multiple occasions, over the course of many years. It just happens to be the exact opposite of the position he endorsed while on CNN.

It appears that Paul had a choice: defend his deeply held principles and try to convince voters of the merit of his ideas, or abandon those principles when they became politically problematic and put his Senate bid in jeopardy. Paul has obviously made his decision.

Indeed, he’s trying to soften other extreme beliefs, too. Paul has already voiced opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, but when asked about the ADA by Wolf Blitzer yesterday, the Senate hopeful said, “I’d have to look at it and see.”

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.