Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took a swipe at GOP rival Ron Paul and his isolationist foreign policy positions while campaigning in Iowa Wednesday, but he later told reporters he would support the outspoken Texas congressman if he were the Republican Party nominee for president.
Paul, who leans more Libertarian than Republican on many issues, leads in some polls of Iowa voters who plan to attend the Republican caucuses next Tuesday. Romney, who comes in a close second in many of those polls, had pretty much left Paul alone until now — even though some Republicans call his views too far outside the mainstream.
While stopping to chat with voters at a coffee shop that overlooked the Mississippi River as the sun rose Wednesday in Muscatine, a supporter asked Romney about his support of Israel. After first criticizing President Obama, saying he's damaged relations with an important ally, Romney than criticized Paul – but without mentioning him by name.
"The greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran," Romney said. "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 [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. I don't trust those who backed Hamas and Hezbollah. I'm concerned that fissile material ultimately will find its way into the hands of terrorists and ultimately create mayhem in the world."
Paul has said he would not bomb Iran to deter that nation's nuclear ambitions.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone so far as to say he wouldn't vote for Paul if he were to win the GOP nomination. But Romney said he would take Paul over a second-term Obama.
"I disagree with Ron Paul on a number of issues," Romney told reporters in Clinton, Iowa. "I'm sure he disagrees with me on a number of issues, and that's part of what goes on in a campaign. But relative to President Obama, I like Ron Paul."
A Paul victory in Iowa would probably not hurt Romney much, as Paul is not expected to be a serious threat through other states' presidential primaries, and Romney leads in the latest polls in the second state to vote, New Hampshire.
And in a Time/CNN poll released Wednesday showed Romney with a slight lead in Iowa as well, with 25 percent support to Paul's 22 percent among likely Republican caucus goers. The poll also showed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum surging to 16 percent support, followed by Gingrich at 14 percent.
Romney himself is downplaying expectations in Iowa. "I don't know where it's all going to end up. I'm not predicting a win here; I'd sure like to win in every state," Romney said. "I'd just want to do well here. I'm happy we're getting an enthusiastic response... (and) I feel like it will be (a) good strong showing."
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