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Libertarian mood in GOP wanes as Mideast concern rises

Libertarian mood in GOP wanes as Mideast concern rises
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), seen here on a recent visit to Iowa, has ridden a wave of libertarian sentiment in the GOP that may now be waning. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The Republican Party's libertarian tide, which waxed strongly over the last four years, has begun to recede in the face of growing public fears about Islamic militancy in the Mideast.

The latest evidence of the shift comes from a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday that shows, among other things, fewer conservatives are worried that government anti-terrorism activities will lead to violations of civil liberties. Concern over the tradeoff between civil liberties and security had risen sharply after Edward Snowden's revelations of the widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency, for which he had been a contractor.

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Just a little more than a year ago, 47% of Americans said they were more concerned that government anti-terrorism policies had gone "too far in restricting the average person's civil liberties" compared with 35% who said they were more concerned those policies "have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country." A second Pew poll later in the fall found a similar result.

Now, however, only 35% say they are concerned that anti-terrorism policies have gone "too far" and 50% say their greater worry is that the policies will not go "far enough."

The Pew survey, conducted Sept. 2-9, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The shift in public opinion comes mostly from the GOP side. Republicans went from an almost even division in November, 43% "too far" and 41% "not far enough," to a lopsided 24% "too far," 64% "not far enough" response in the current survey. Among Republicans, the shift was particularly strong among those who said they identify with the tea party movement.

Democrats remain closely divided on the issue, with self-identified liberals more likely to say they fear the government has gone "too far."

The split among Democrats has been notable in Congress, where a group of mostly western Democratic senators, led by Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have been prominent critics of the NSA and the Obama administration's continuation of some surveillance policies adopted during the George W. Bush administration.

Among Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has led the critics of the NSA. His denunciations of government surveillance, highlighted by a 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan in March 2013, catapulted him into the first ranks of Republican presidential prospects.

But if the shift in the Republican mood persists, with growing support for the use of military force overseas and declining concern over civil liberties, Paul's appeal could wane. Notably, the senator has appeared to shift ground in recent days. Wednesday night, after Obama's speech, he said in an interview on Fox News that he was "all in for saying we have to combat ISIS."

For more news on policy and politics, follow @DavidLauter on Twitter.

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