Presidential hopeful Rep. Ron Paul greets veterans at a campaign event… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
Reporting from Muscatine and Mason City, Iowa — Republicans battling for their party's presidential nomination scrambled across Iowa lobbing attacks Wednesday in a free-for-all that captured the rapidly shifting dynamics of the race.
Six days before Iowans start casting ballots, the rising momentum of Ron Paul led Mitt Romney to take a swipe at the Houston congressman, though not by name, for refusing to advocate a tough policy toward Iran's nuclear program.
"The greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran," Romney told Iowans packed into Elly's Tea & Coffee House in Muscatine.
"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," he said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Romney also mocked Newt Gingrich for saying Tuesday that Romney should "be man enough" to take responsibility for negative TV ads financed by his "millionaire friends."
"I don't know why he's so angry," Romney told CNN with a chuckle.
After a few weeks as the Iowa front-runner, Gingrich has dropped sharply in voter surveys amid the onslaught of attack ads run by both the Paul campaign and Romney's supporters, leaving the former Massachusetts governor better positioned for the first contest of the nomination fight.
Paul tried to stay above the fray as he stumped in central Iowa, even as his campaign aired an ad calling Gingrich a "serial hypocrite" and Romney a "flip-flopper."
With polls showing Paul a contender for first place in Tuesday's caucuses, he studiously ignored a barrage of news media questions about fresh attacks from Romney and Gingrich, including over incendiary newsletters published under his name in the 1980s and 1990s.
Silence was Paul's only response to a throng of reporters asking about Romney's remarks on Iran and Gingrich's statement that Paul would be unworthy of his vote were the unorthodox libertarian to become the GOP nominee.
Campaigning at the Iowa Speedway racetrack in Newton, Paul drew applause from a crowd of about 100 for his attacks on overseas military entanglements ("Bring our troops home"), what he deems to be a federal assault on personal liberties ("I'd like to repeal the Patriot Act") and big banks ("They should go bankrupt, not us").
Later, in a surprise move, and a blunt reflection of the shifting fortunes of the candidates, Michele Bachmann's Iowa chairman defected to Paul's campaign. State Sen. Kent Sorenson, a tea party favorite, helped lead the Minnesota congresswoman to victory in the Ames straw poll in August, an early test of campaign organization. Bachmann's popularity has been in decline ever since.
"It's difficult, but it's the right thing to do," Sorenson announced to a crowd of several hundred at a Veterans for Ron Paul rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.
It was a severe blow to Bachmann's sputtering campaign. In a written statement, she said Paul was "worried about people learning about his dangerous stance on foreign policy and how he will make America less safe."
"Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign," she said. Sorenson later said he had "no idea" why she made that claim.
Meanwhile, in Mason City, Gingrich renewed his pledge to stick to a "positive campaign," but struggled to reconcile that promise with a nasty anti-Romney brochure mailed to Iowa voters by an independent committee of his supporters. It describes Romney as "the second most dangerous man in America" after President Obama.
"I would discourage them not to do that anymore," Gingrich said. "I think that's not right. Again, I don't control them."
Days earlier, when Romney said that he, too, could not control the independent "super PAC" groups that support him, Gingrich called Romney's defense "palpably misleading, clearly false and ? politics in its worst form."
"These are his people running his ads, doing his dirty work while he pretends to be above it," the former House speaker said.
An apparent beneficiary of Gingrich's drop in popularity is Rick Santorum: A CNN/Time poll released Wednesday found the former Pennsylvania senator vaulting to third place among likely Iowa caucus voters. Romney was first, with 25%; followed by Paul, 22%; Santorum, 16%; Gingrich, 14%; Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 11%, Bachmann, 9%; and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., 1%.
Santorum, the first 2012 candidate to visit all of Iowa's 99 counties, went on the attack against Paul, saying the Texan could endanger national security by his proposals to withdraw U.S. troops "from every place from Europe to the Middle East to China [and] abandon the Straits of Hormuz -- pull the 5th Fleet back." The Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is the United States' main military counter to Iran in the Persian Gulf.
"That's something he can do," Santorum told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer in Dubuque. "And that's one of the reasons I think you see a lot of folks who are having second thoughts about putting him in a position where he can be the commander in chief."
Nonetheless, like Romney, Santorum said that if Paul won the nomination, he would still support him over Obama. "I'd have to take a lot of antacids when I go into the voting booth and vote for him," Santorum said.
Mehta reported from Muscatine and Abcarian from Mason City. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and James Oliphant and Paul West in Iowa contributed to this report.