Mitt Romney, Rick Perry hit Ron Paul on Iran

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MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on Wednesday assailed Republican presidential rival Ron Paul for saying the U.S. has no business bombing Iran to keep it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, drawing a sharp contrast with their rising rival as he returned to Iowa to campaign before the lead-off caucuses.

“One of the people running for president thinks it’s okay for Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said in this eastern Iowa city in response to a question from the audience. “I don’t.”

It was the first time Romney has challenged Paul directly since the Texas congressman jumped in polls. Neither Romney nor Perry, the Texas governor, named Paul, but the target was clear.

“You don’t have to vote for a candidate who will allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Because America will be next,” Perry said in Urbandale, reiterating a line of argument from a day earlier.

“I’m here to say: You have a choice,” Perry added.

A campaign sign for Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, sits in front of a home, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, in Ankeny, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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A campaign sign for Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, ... more >

As if in rebuttal, Paul’s campaign launched a new television ad describing him as “principled, incorruptible, guided by faith and principle” and the man to restore the economy. “Politicians who supported bailouts and mandates, serial hypocrites and flip floppers can’t clean up the mess,” it says as photos of Newt Gingrich and Romney appear on screen.

The stepped-up criticism of Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican, comes as surveys show he’s in contention to win Tuesday’s caucuses.

In recent days, conservative opponents including Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have increased their criticism of Paul on social issues, foreign affairs and inflammatory comments in his decades-old newsletter. By tearing him down, they hope voters will give their campaigns another, closer look after a season marked by candidates who have risen quickly in public standing only to fall back down.

Gingrich, whose slide in surveys over the past week has come as Paul has risen, said Tuesday he couldn’t vote for Paul if he were to become the GOP nominee and called his views “totally outside the mainstream of every decent American” during an interview with CNN.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, began Wednesday, the second day of his Iowa bus tour with a speech to about 200 people in the atrium of the Southbridge Mall in Mason City. He plugged his support for supply-side economics favored by President Ronald Reagan.

Gingrich said the primary is giving voters a “choice between a populist supply side approach … and a much more timid Washington-centered approach that will not create jobs.”

Bachmann, who was on the 86th stop of her tour of Iowa’s 99 counties, criticized both of her rivals from Texas. She accused Perry of spending “27 years as a political insider.” He was a Texas legislator and agriculture commissioner before becoming governor in 2001.

Bachmann said Paul would be “dangerous as president” because of his hands-off views on national security.

Paul, for his part, was meeting with supporters near Des Moines, his first visit to the state since before the campaigns went dark for the Christmas holiday. He planned a series of events over the next two days as he looked to take advantage of a burst of momentum.

A conservative, Paul commands strong allegiance from his supporters but appears to have little potential to expand his appeal and emerge as a serious challenger for the nomination. Yet he could complicate other candidates’ pathway to the nomination.

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