On The Road With Ron Paul

The candidate who poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Mitt Romney in Iowa is Rep. Ron Paul. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea joins Robert Siegel from Iowa to talk about the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Voting begins at the Iowa caucuses Tuesday evening.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As we just heard, the candidate who poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Mitt Romney in Iowa is the other repeat contestant from 2008, Ron Paul. And again this year, Paul stands apart. He is the only major candidate without a bus tour this week and when he talks issues, he spends a lot of time talking about foreign policy and national security.

RON PAUL: Military money sometimes is just military mischief. Defense money is quite different. This is why I want to change the foreign policy and change the spending overseas. I think we're in way too many wars and it's time to change that and start bringing our military home to protect this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: That's GOP candidate Ron Paul speaking this afternoon in Perry, Iowa. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is also there and he joins us now.

Don, we heard Mitt Romney baiting Ron Paul about Iran and the chance of that country getting a nuclear weapon. This week, we've heard Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and choke off Persian Gulf oil.

What does Congressman Paul have to say about all that?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, he's happy to respond and, in fact, it came up as the very first question at today's town hall. Paul responded that he would not see it as an act of war. He added that it would be an act of war for surrounding countries in the region, but that he would see it as Iran trying to get attention and create problems. Then he said his response would be to go to the Congress and see if Congress wanted to respond with a declaration of war.

Then, as far as the solution long term, he said it's to get away from things like sanctions and tariffs and barriers in our dealings with countries that we have problems with. And he said that sanctions were what led to the war in Iraq and that they will do the same in Iran. So that's his answer.

SIEGEL: Don, a lot of people thought that Ron Paul's ideas about defense would hurt him in the Republican nominating contest, but he's been front and center with them and it seems to be working.

GONYEA: To a point, it does. And it's working as part of the entire Ron Paul package. First off, it sets him apart to be talking about these foreign policy issues in such an aggressive way. And he says, as we heard in that piece of tape, that it would save the U.S. money and the connection he makes is that would then make for a stronger economy.

But both he and his followers say it's consistent and the people who come to see him do like that. Person after person, when you talk to them afterward, when you work the room, cites his consistency. So it is working for him, though, Robert, some in the crowd will also tell you that they're more interested in his call to rein in the fed and cut domestic programs and that they don't see such a need for such a dramatic scaling back of the U.S. footprint overseas.

SIEGEL: But Don, when you speak of Ron Paul's following, is this a case of him having a small base of voters who never go away, but the base never gets any bigger, or does Ron Paul actually have a chance to break out either in Iowa or New Hampshire?

GONYEA: His answer to that is basically, you know, let's see. I mean, he is predicting that he'll do very well in Iowa. New Hampshire is a different challenge for him. It's a different type of Republican voter. But you're right. His base is loyal. They are not fickle. They do not deviate.

But, again, the best he does in polling is around 25 percent and that can get you to the top in a very crowded field, but as the field winnows, it's another question.

SIEGEL: There's another set of questions about Ron Paul that he's faced about his past opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his opposition to the U.S. relationship with Israel, a lot of questions in the columns and on cable TV about those things. Does he get questions about them when he meets ordinary voters in Iowa?

GONYEA: Not much. In fact, they didn't come up at all at the town hall today. But he did appear on a conservative talk radio program on WHO radio in Des Moines this morning. He was asked by a caller about those writings some 20 years ago in the Ron Paul Newsletter. Those writings are described as racist and anti-Semitic and anti-gay. He stressed that he didn't write them, that he was the publisher. He called those statements horrible, but he also said he didn't control everything in the publication and he went on to say that there was just a very small number of them, that it was a long time ago and that people shouldn't connect them to him personally.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea in Perry, Iowa.

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