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Attack Ads on Iran Trail New Candidate Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a newly declared 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks in Milford, New Hampshire, April 8, 2015.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a newly declared 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks in Milford, New Hampshire, April 8, 2015.

When Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky travels across the country this week as a newly minted presidential candidate, he will be greeted by $1 million worth of attack ads accusing him of being "wrong and dangerous" on Iran.

It is an early sign that the unorthodox Republican — who criticized both Republicans and Democrats in his campaign announcement — may find himself an outlier within his own party when he argues that its limited-government ideals should apply to foreign as well as domestic policy.

Paul's launch Tuesday of his 2016 presidential campaign in Louisville, his home state's biggest city, came days after Iran and six major powers reached a framework agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program while offering sanctions relief to Tehran. Paul has been skeptical about the deal, but has not rejected it outright.

Even before Paul announced his bid, a political group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America said it would buy television ads criticizing Paul for his views on Iran.

The group is headed by Rick Reed, a veteran Republican media strategist who has worked for South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — a hawk who is considering a presidential bid of his own. Reed is known for his role in the "swift boat" ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 on his security record.

In the ad, a voice intones that Paul supports Democratic President Barack Obama's negotiations with Iran.

"He doesn't understand the threat," the ad says, before playing a clip of Paul saying, "You know, it's ridiculous to think that they're a threat to our national security."

"Rand Paul is wrong and dangerous. Tell him to stop siding with Obama, because even one Iranian bomb would be a disaster," the narrator says while a photo shows a classic mushroom cloud.

Not "beating the drums for war"

In Louisville and in comments Wednesday, Paul expressed some doubts about the nuclear deal and insisted that Congress should have to sign off on it, as legislation proposed by Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would require.

Obama has touted the framework agreement as the best hope for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

"I am somewhat skeptical of the president's agreement," Paul told NBC's "Today" program Wednesday. "However, I am in favor of negotiations over war, and I think I've been one of the reasonable people in our party who has not been beating the drums for war."

Paul and his aides said the ads are a sign that hawks see his campaign as a threat.

Aides did not detail how Paul would respond to the ads, but they said the differences between him and his party's hawkish wing have been exaggerated. They noted that Paul thinks Iran should be barred from acquiring nuclear weapons, that he has backed sanctions against Tehran, and that he was one of the 47 senators who signed a letter to Iranian leaders last month warning that an eventual deal could be undone by Congress.

But Paul was the lone "no" vote on a 2012 Senate resolution saying that it was U.S. policy to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, arguing this could lock the United States into a pre-emptive war.

The ads, the first major attack ads of the nascent 2016 election campaign, are scheduled to run in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada as Paul visits those states, which vote early in the caucus-and-primary process.

Skeptical on foreign policy, wars

Paul's view on the Iran deal, while clearly not completely behind Obama, reflects his skeptical approach to foreign policy and in particular to wars.

He argues that actions like the U.S. participation in NATO airstrikes on Libya that helped rebels overthrow former leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 can lead to unintended consequences and tie the United States down to years of expensive and fruitless nation-building.

That has resonated with voters who came of age during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as many voters of all ages who worry the United States is living beyond its means.

Even so, Paul last month proposed an increase in military spending.

But Paul is viewed with suspicion by many in the party's hawkish wing, said Norm Coleman, a former Republican senator who has close ties to pro-Israel donors.

Among likely Republican candidates, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said last week that the United States should walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida called it a mistake.

Republican voters are split. Thirty-one percent of Republican voters favor the deal, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, and 30 percent oppose it.

The rest are undecided.