The Republicans jostling to break into the upper tier of presidential contenders clashed over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and their credentials to be commander in chief as they dashed across Iowa on Thursday to lock down support in next week’s opening contest of the race.
Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Texas congressman who has gained popularity among Iowa Republicans while still marginal in nationwide polls, defended his call for backing away from sanctions to deter Iran from building nuclear weapons. Paul’s stand drew scathing criticism from rivals.
At the same time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who lost his front-runner status weeks ago, launched a new assault against Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania whose sudden rise to third place in an Iowa poll transformed him overnight from afterthought to media star.
Campaigning in Cedar Rapids, Perry called Santorum a champion of pork-barrel spending who “even voted for the Alaska ‘bridge to nowhere.’”
“Senator, I’m calling you out,” said the Texan, who vowed to take a “sledgehammer” to Washington.
Staying out of the crossfire, for the most part, was Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor stuck mostly to touting his business background as he raced from Cedar Falls to Mason City and Ames.
Introducing him at each stop was his wife, Ann Romney, whose presence offered a constant reminder to Iowa’s key evangelical voters that one of her husband’s chief rivals, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has been married three times and has admitted to infidelity along the way.
“It’s been wonderful to know he’s the kind of guy to always put family first,” Romney said of her husband to Iowans crammed into a Cedar Falls diner.
Santorum was more blunt in drawing the contrast, although he too avoided mentioning Gingrich by name.
“Married one time,” Santorum told MSNBC at a campaign stop in Coralville. “Seven children. Live a pretty boring life, except the fact that we have seven children, which keeps us pretty busy.”
Santorum relished the spotlight on Thursday, scoring a coveted live interview on NBC’s “Today” and basking in record crowds, thanks to his 11th-hour vault from single-digit irrelevance to 16% in a new CNN/Time poll.
Campaigning near the Mississippi River, Santorum criticized Paul’s isolationist foreign policy and said the congressman would jeopardize national security by dismantling the U.S. Navy.
“Congressman Paul would take every ship we have and bring it into port,” Santorum told supporters at the Button Factory restaurant on the Mississippi River.
Michele Bachmann was more caustic in attacking Paul, who embarrassed the Minnesota congresswoman on Tuesday night by winning the endorsement of her Iowa campaign chairman. She told a Des Moines radio audience that Paul’s position on Iran risked the nuclear annihilation of a U.S. city.
“I am unwilling, if I would be the commander in chief, to wait until an American city was obliterated by a nuclear weapon, killing millions of Americans, to respond to Iran,” Bachmann said on WHO-AM’s “Mickelson in the Morning.”
“That’s what Ron Paul will do. He would wait until after we are attacked before we respond.”
Paul stuck to his positions as he stumped in central Iowa.
“I think we’re looking for trouble because we put these horrendous sanctions on Iran,” he told an audience at the Hotel Pattee in Perry. Paul said Iranians understandably would like to have a nuclear weapon, even though there is “no evidence whatsoever” that they have enriched uranium.
Apparently alluding to Israel and its atomic arsenal, Paul said, “If I were an Iranian, I’d like to have a nuclear weapon too, because you gain respect from them.”
Paul described Western sanctions against Iran as “acts of war” that would justify Iran’s threatened blocking of the oil flow through the Strait of Hormuz. He said he would not respond militarily to keep the strait open, because he would not consider its closure an act of war against the U.S.
Gingrich, campaigning in picturesque Storm Lake with his wife, Callista, cast himself as a champion of “Reaganomics.”
Arthur Laffer, one of the architects of President Reagan’s economic policies, offered a testimonial to the former House speaker. With Gingrich in the White House, Laffer told a crowd of about 100 at a water park resort, “you are going to see economic growth beyond what you have ever seen.”
Laffer also applauded Gingrich’s leadership in Congress during the 1990s.
“He was able to work with Bill Clinton closely and carefully to bring one of the most prosperous periods in American history,” Laffer said.
Robin Abcarian in Storm Lake, Iowa, Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and James Oliphant in Muscatine, Iowa, contributed to this report.