Was this the Moment That Ron Paul Lost Iowa?

SIOUX CITY, IA - DECEMBER 15: (AFP OUT) Republican presidential candidates from left, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, (R-TX), and Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-MN), participate in a Republican presidential debate at the Sioux City Convention Center on December 15, 2011 in Sioux City, Iowa. The GOP contenders are in the final stretch of campaigning in Iowa where the January 3rd caucus is the first test the candidates must face before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. (Photo by Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images)
Photo by Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images

In the Sioux City spin room, after last night’s debate, rival campaigns were surprisingly eager to praise Ron Paul. “Ron Paul could win Iowa,” mused Stuart Stevens, a top adviser to Romney. “Ron Paul’s a factor, and he will do well,” said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. “The people who support him are going to come out. They’ve been working on that for four years.”

You can read this between the lines. If Paul wins the caucuses, and Romney loses them again, the political press is ready to declare the whole process a waste. Chris Wallace said as much on Fox. That would be good, in the aggregate, for Romney. If would be a wash for Gingrich – winning would be better, but coming in second to Paul would get him crowned the “real” winner of the caucuses. (I don’t write these rules. Blame the people who trumpeted McGovern in 1972 after he lost narrowly to Muskie in New Hampshire.)

But when I talked to Republicans who didn’t have a horse in the race, I heard something completely different – air coming out of the Paul balloon. They argued that Paul had blown his shot at winning the caucuses by allowing himself to spend nearly five minutes discussing the complete lack of existential foreign policy threats, and the ease with which America could blow off its bogeyman. It went by quickly, but here’s the transcript of the moment, according to these doubters, that Paul wandered off the golf course.

PAUL: Obviously, I would like to see a lot less nuclear weapons. I - - I don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I would like to reduce them, because there would be less chance of war. But to declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and say all Muslims are the same, this is dangerous talk. Yeah, there are some radicals, but they don’t come here to kill us because we’re free and prosperous. Do they go to Switzerland and Sweden? I mean, that’s absurd. If you think that is the reason, we have no chance of winning this. They come here and explicitly explain it to us. The CIA has explained it to us. It said they come here and they want to do us harm because we’re bombing them.

What is the whole world about the drone being in Iran? And we’re begging and pleading, and how are we going to start a war to get this drone back? Why were we flying the drone over Iran? Why do we have to bomb so many countries? Why are we in – have 900 bases, 130 countries, and we’re totally bankrupt? How are you going to rebuild the military when we have no money? How are we going to take care of the people?

So I think – I think this wild goal to have another war in the name of defense is the dangerous thing. The danger is really us overreacting. And we need a strong national defense. And we need to only go to war with a declaration of war, and just carelessly flouting it and starting these wars so often.

BAIER: Speaker Gingrich, is Congressman Paul…

BACHMANN: And the point would be – can I respond to that? Can I…

BAIER: Go ahead.

BACHMANN: Can I respond? And the problem would be the greatest under-reaction in world history if we have an avowed madman who uses that nuclear weapon to wipe nations off the face of the Earth. And 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. Nothing could be more dangerous than the comments that we just heard.

BAIER: All right, 30 seconds, Dr. Paul.

PAUL: There is no U.N. report that said that. It’s totally wrong on what – what you just said.

BACHMANN: It’s an IAEA report.

PAUL: That – that is not – that is not true. They – they produced information that led you to believe that, but they have no evidence. There’s no – been no enrichment of these bombs.

BACHMANN: And if we agree with that… if we agree with that, the United States’ people could be at risk of our national security.

PAUL: OK. She took my time, so I’d like – I’d like to finish. If she thinks we live in a dangerous world, she ought to think back when I was drafted in the 1962 with nuclear missiles in Cuba. And Kennedy calls Khrushchev and talks to them, and talks them out of this so we don’t have a nuclear exchange.

And you’re trying to dramatize this, that we have to go and – and treat Iran like we’ve treated Iraq and kill a million Iraqis, and 8,000- some Americans have died since we’ve gone to war. You cannot solve these problems with war. You can solve the problems if we follow our constitution and go to war only when we declare the war, win them and get them over with instead of this endless fighting and this endless attitude that we have enemy all around the world.

These Republicans thought Paul was just making stuff up about the IAEA report. He wasn’t. Bachmann claimed that the report put Iran “within just months” of nuclear power status. It doesn’t – you can read it here. The strategists’ take on Paul was that 1) voters disagree with him on this and 2) he sounded like he lost his own plot two or three times. We don’t know if 1) is true, and we certainly don’t know if it’s the kind of thing that stops a candidate winning a multi-way race where a plurality will give him the win. On 2), Paul did go on for an awfully long time. He talked more about foreign policy than his campaign does – his flashy ads don’t mention this stuff at all.

Oh, sorry about that headline. A friendly tip: If there’s a question mark in the headline, the answer is usually “no,” and the rest of the time it’s “to be determined.”