Ron Paul Nears Top Of Iowa's GOP Presidential Polls

The latest Republican presidential candidate to move to the front of the pack in Iowa is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. That position has made him a target for most of the other candidates as each makes a closing run across Iowa. What sets Paul apart from his rivals is how much of the time he focuses U.S. foreign policy.

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Congressman Ron Paul has a dedicated group of supporters. They've backed him through two straight presidential campaigns, attracted to his libertarian view of government or his opposition to wars abroad. Many of those supporters have fiercely criticized the media for failing to pay attention to Paul.

INSKEEP: Now, as he rides near the top of the polls in Iowa - the first state to cast votes - Paul is finally getting that attention, including sharper scrutiny of his record. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea followed Paul on the campaign trail in Iowa.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Survey after survey ranked the economy as the top of issue for voters this year. But what sets Congressman Ron Paul apart from his GOP rivals is how much of the time he puts U.S. foreign policy front and center at his campaign events. Yesterday, he was in the small town of Perry, Iowa, where he spoke to about a 100 people in the ballroom of an historic old hotel downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RON PAUL: Why don't we look to the overseas spending? This overseas spending - the military spending overseas, I am absolutely convinced, does not make us a safer nation.

GONYEA: Paul does talk about the economy, mostly in terms of how bloated the federal government has gotten and how that has hurt job creation and the ability of markets to work. But he also looks at the military action and the wars the U.S. is involved in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PAUL: 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)

GONYEA: It is doubly unusual, because championing military funding has long been one of the key pillars of Republican political campaigns. At Ron Paul events, even the audience helps keep the focus on foreign policy. Yesterday, the candidate was asked about Iran and the U.S. belief that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. The questioner wondered if Paul would consider it an act of war if Iran made good on a threat to block the Strait of Hormuz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PAUL: I would not see that as an act of war against us. It would be act of war against those countries there. But would it - would I say - throw up my hands and neglect it and say nothing at all? I would go to the Congress. I would, you know, report to the Congress.

GONYEA: Paul also says sanctions against Iran are a bad idea. Such statements have prompted attacks from other candidates. Here's Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: Actually, one of the people running for president thinks it's OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I don't. I don't trust the Ayatollahs. I don't trust the - Ahmadinejad.

GONYEA: Paul Brushes off such criticism. Yesterday, though, he also had to deal with another issue that has cropped up as he's risen in the polls. In the 1980s and '90s, he published a newsletter that included some articles that contained racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay passages. Paul didn't write the articles in question. Here he is on WHO talk radio in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO INTERVIEW)

PAUL: And it was bad stuff. It wasn't a reflection of my views at all. So it got in the letter. I think it was terrible. It was tragic. And, you know, and I had some responsibility for it, because the name went out on my letter, but I was not an editor. I'm like a publisher.

GONYEA: None of this seems to be hurting Paul. Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says Paul seems to have found a formula to stand out in the crowded field in the caucuses.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Enthusiasm times organization equals turnout. And Paul definitely has extremely enthusiastic, very ardent supporters. He's also got a very good organization. They're much better than they were four years ago.

GONYEA: And, Goldford says, Ron Paul seems poised for a finish at or near the top next Tuesday. But because he challenges some long-held GOP beliefs on defense and the military, the big challenge will be broadening his base of support as the primary season progresses.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.

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