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Vladimir Putin is the shadow candidate of the Republican primary.

The Russian president is the ultimate foreign policy bogeyman in this campaign, summoned like a menacing apparition any time a candidate’s manliness is called into question.

Chris Christie, before he left the race, did it. So has Ted Cruz. It’s become something of a punch line, particularly whenever Trump or Marco Rubio turn and run from global heavyweights like Joe Scarborough and the debate moderators of CNBC.

But it does go to show that, for the Republican candidates anyway, Putin is more of a fiction than a reality, an unholy amalgamation of feared enemy and model leader, a colossus of brute strength that must be met with an American colossus, the Rocky to Putin’s Drago. In a way, they’re all ultimately competing with Putin.