SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- After Thursday night's GOP presidential primary debate, an influential Iowa Republican leaned over to a reporter for The Huffington Post and said, "Ron Paul lost the Iowa caucuses tonight."
Paul, the 76-year old Texas congressman and gadfly extraordinaire, went on at length during the two-hour debate about Iran, arguing that the U.S. should not use military force to stop them from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
"There is no evidence that they have [a nuclear weapon]. And it would make more sense -- if we lived through the Cold War, which we did, with 30,000 missiles pointed at us, we ought to really sit back and think and not jump the gun and believe that we are going to be attacked," Rep. Paul (R-Texas) said.
"You know what I really fear about what's happening here? It's another Iraq coming. There's war propaganda going on," he said.
Paul's philosophy that the U.S. is overextended militarily around the globe has caught on with many conservatives and Republicans, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on for a decade.
And many Americans are anxious about the prospect of military action against Iran. But though Paul did at one point say he does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, he strayed Thursday into rhetoric that made it sound as if the U.S. should resign itself to such a reality.
"Ehud Barak, the defense minister for Israel, said if he were in Iran, he would probably want a nuclear weapon, too, because they're surrounded, for geopolitical reasons. So that's an understanding," Paul said. "So the fact that they are surrounded, they have a desire. And how do we treat people when they have a nuclear weapon? With a lot more respect."
"What did we do with Libya? We talked to them. We talked them out of their nuclear weapon. And then we killed them," Paul said, in a highly confusing reference to Libya's 2003 abandonment of its nuclear program -- which many attributed to its fear of U.S. military action after the invasion of Iraq, and to the death earlier this year of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
"So, it makes more sense to work with people. And the whole thing is that nuclear weapons are loaded over there. Pakistan, India, Israel has 300 of them. We have our ships there. We've got to get it in a proper context. We don't need another war," he added.
Paul's insistence that Iran does not yet have a weapon sounded at times as if he was arguing they will not have one, even if that was not what he intended.
Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, defended Paul's remarks.
"Dr. Paul once again distinguished himself as the only candidate with a pro-American foreign policy, and will gain votes because of it," Benton told The Huffington Post. "The media elites and main-stream talking heads may not understand it, but the American people stand with Ron and don't want to overreact and jump recklessly into another trillion-dollar foreign war."
Paul has made comments earlier this year that were tolerant of Iran's likely desire for a nuclear weapon, but has not touched on the subject for most of the fall. And after being ignored by most in the media for much of the last year, Paul has been the subject of increasing attention as the Jan. 3 caucuses approach.
Paul's campaign is widely acknowledged to have probably the best organization and the most passionate supporters in the state, and Paul has begun to head toward 20 percent in Iowa polling. There has even been talk of Paul possibly winning the caucuses.
But some said Paul's comments on Iran Thursday night may reduce the likelihood of such an outcome, because they will turn off some conservatives who would not have supported Paul in the past but may have been considering him in part because they are dissatisfied with the rest of the field.
"Last night's debate likely halted his rise," said Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. "It remains to be seen if he'll slip, however, as his supporters remain the most stable and steadfast in terms of their support of Ron Paul."
One Iowa Republican said that even if Paul limits his growth potential, he may already be able to attract 20 or 25 percent support from caucus goers, which still could be enough to win.
But Albrecht told HuffPost that Paul's focus on foreign policy "went precisely where he didn't want to less than three weeks before the caucuses."
"The biggest hurdle for Ron Paul with Iowa caucus-goers remains his foreign policy positions," Albrecht said. "His paid media and mailers have all been focused on the top issue for Iowans, the nation's debt. Ron Paul's biggest strength is fiscal policy. His fiscal focus has skyrocketed his campaign here."
During one exchange in particular, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Paul was dismissive of a recent report by the United Nation's nuclear watch dog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that was widely interpreted as evidence that Tehran is rapidly closing in on producing a bomb.
"We have an IAEA report that just recently came out that said, literally, Iran is within just months of being able to obtain that weapon," Bachmann said.
Paul shot back: "There is no U.N. report that said that. It's totally wrong on what you just said."
Paul was partially correct. The IAEA report did not say that Iran is "just months" away from obtaining a bomb, though the L.A. Times reported the day before the report was released that U.N. inspectors believe that Iran would need only about six months to enrich enough uranium to have a nuclear weapon.
Bachmann noted simply, "It's an IAEA report." It was as if she were saying that if the IAEA is finally saying Iran is after a bomb, then even the most dovish institutions agree with what American hawks have been saying for years. The IAEA has been slower than many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to conclude that Tehran is in fact pursuing nuclear weapons as its end game.
"That, that is not, that is not true," Paul said again. "They produced information that led you to believe that, but they have no evidence. There's been no enrichment of these bombs."
Paul's suggestion that the IAEA report was intentionally misleading sounded like "black helicopters" talk to the Republican official who spoke to HuffPost after the debate. Even though Paul's point was that there is no evidence that Iran has enriched uranium and weaponized it, to many viewers, his rejections of the IAEA report likely sounded as if he were rejecting the report's broader conclusion, that Tehran is actively pursuing a bomb.
This story was updated to clarify Ron Paul's claims in the context of the IAEA report.