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“Last night revealed that Paul is not only an isolationist, but incoherent, and the gap between his view on the one hand and essentially everybody else on the stage was exposed as dramatically as ever,” he said.

He said Mr. Paul’s answers were so disqualifying that if he had been part of the debate he would have told the moderators that he wanted to yield his own time to the congressman to hear what else he would trip over — “Give my 90 seconds to Ron Paul and have him talk more about foreign policy,” he said.

Mr. Paul defended his debate performance, saying the underlying question of whether the U.S. should be negotiating with the Taliban is a discussion that should have happened 10 years ago.

He said the real isolationists are his opponents who want to put sanctions on Iran, which he called an act of aggression.

“If we don’t want people to ban oil imports to our country, why should we do that to other countries,” he said.

Poll shows a schism

The Times/JZ Analytics poll asked 500 likely Republican primary voters — which includes a small number of Democrats and a greater number of independents who said they would vote in the GOP primaries — to select which statement they agreed with more.

The first statement read: “America is the most powerful nation in the world not only because of its strong military but because of the values of personal freedom it represents. America must intervene in the affairs of the world whenever its interests are challenged.” The second statement read: “America is in a new global era and cannot afford to spread its resources too thin. It must rely on strong alliances with other nations and take care of its domestic priorities first.”

While 48 percent chose the first statement, 47 percent chose the second. The rest said they weren’t sure.

Colin Dueck, a professor at George Mason University who has studied the Republican Party and foreign policy, said the GOP used to be riven by debates over the robustness of U.S. power overseas. But he said the Cold War seemed to settle that issue, and from the 1960s through the 1980s, mainstream Republicans accepted the need for U.S. engagement to fight communism.

Isolationism re-emerged in the early 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but President George W. Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks swung things back again.

Isolationist strain overstated?

As voters across the political spectrum wearied of those wars, the call to focus on domestic issues has understandably grown, Mr. Dueck said — but he cautioned that doesn’t mean the GOP’s electorate is becoming isolationist.

He said the way the poll question was framed forced people to choose between one activist option and another sensible option about curtailing involvement but still maintaining alliances. He said neither captured the true extent of Mr. Paul’s foreign policy.

“That’s not necessarily people saying, ‘I demand the end of NATO. I demand the end of alliances with Japan and South Korea,’ ” Mr. Dueck said. “I actually think that the Paul position maxes out at 20 percent among Republicans.”

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