Mitt Romney speaks at Elly's Tea and Coffee on Wednesday in Muscatine,… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Muscatine, Iowa — Mitt Romney swatted at Ron Paul on Wednesday, a shift for the candidate who has largely ignored the Texas congressman and a possible sign at the shifting nature of the race in the state that in less than a week holds the first presidential voting contest in the nation.
During a stop at a coffee shop here on the banks of the Mississippi River, a voter asked him about America's relationship with Israel. After arguing that President Obama has deeply damaged relations with a nation that is a vital United States ally, Romney turned to Iran and criticized Paul's isolationist foreign policy, though not by name.
"The greatest threat that Israel faces and frankly the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran," he said. "One of the people running for president thinks it's OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I don't. I don't trust the ayatollahs. I don't trust Ahmadinejad. I don't trust those who backed Hamas and Hezbollah. I'm concerned that fissile material ultimately will find its way into the hands of terrorists and ultimately create mayhem in the world."
Paul has led many recent polls in Iowa, but Romney has left him alone, with many political observers believing that if Paul does well, that hurts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's bid, so it ultimately benefits Romney because Paul's prospects beyond Iowa are dim.
But as Paul has risen in the polls, he has faced increased scrutiny, such as over newsletters published under his name that contained racist and inflammatory language. (Paul has said he did not write the words and was unaware they were printed in this publication). If such scrutiny continues, and Paul follows Gingrich's path and falls in the polls, Romney's shot at winning the Iowa caucuses becomes clearer.
Romney demurred when asked to speculate about the outcome of the caucuses on Tuesday, saying he didn't want to play the expectations game.
"My expectation is to get a good start here in Iowa. I want to get a real boost from the people here and then take that across the nation," he said in an interview with the NBC affiliate in Davenport. "I want to win, of course. Everybody wants to win."
Romney made the remarks on the second day of a four-day swing through the state. He began the day with the early morning stop at Elly's Tea and Coffee, where an overflow crowded filled the café and spilled outside waiting to greet the former Massachusetts governor. As is his custom, Romney aimed his fire at President Obama, and aside from the reference to Paul, he didn't go after his GOP rivals for the nomination.
"I really need your help at the caucuses. I want you to bring friends, get neighbors and say, ‘Come with me to caucus.' I'd love to have your help and your support," he said. "To beat President Obama we have to have someone who has the vision for what America can be to make us stronger and more prosperous and create jobs."
Although Romney's public schedule was light – three events – he was doing saturation media, from the local Muscatine reporter who got to interview him on his bus to a satellite interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer from a diner in Clinton, Iowa.
In an interview on Fox News Channel in the morning, he continued to tweak Gingrich. Last week, Gingrich failed to gather the requisite signatures to obtain a spot on Virginia's ballot, an organizational failure that his campaign likened to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Romney earlier in the week said a more apt comparison was to Lucille Ball's classic "I Love Lucy" scene in a chocolate factory, where she is overwhelmed by the candy that must be wrapped. Gingrich had bristled at the remark, saying Romney ought to say it to his face and "at least be man enough to own it."
Romney responded that the comment was a joke.
"Well, we all make mistakes and sometimes our campaigns don't get things done quite right," he said on "Fox and Friends." "It's such a classic scene. Those of us who have gotten a little behind can identify with poor Lucy."
"I hope the speaker understands that was humor and I'm happy to tell my humorous anecdote to him face-to-face," he said.