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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Ron Paul staged a strong defense of his anti-war views on Thursday in an outburst on foreign policy that might lose him support from fellow Republicans.
Paul came into the debate rising in the polls, admired by many Republicans in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire for his conservatism on fiscal issues and criticism of big government.
But in the last debate before Iowans vote on January 3, the Texas congressman might have crossed a line with Republican voters when in a war of words with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Paul accused his fellow Republicans of wanting to follow Iraq with another "useless" war.
Paul stated that he would not go to war with Iran if there was proof the country had developed a nuclear weapon, leading Bachmann and others to pounce.
"My fear is it's another Iraq coming," Paul said. "There's a lot of war propaganda going on."
Bachmann, trailing in the polls, seized on Paul's controversial foreign policy views, going for the jugular in Paul's most vulnerable area with Republican voters.
"I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one we just heard from Ron Paul," Bachmann said.
"The reason why I would say that is because we know without a shadow of a doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon. They will use it to wipe our friend Israel off the map, and they would use it against the United States of America."
Paul, who is among the top three favorites to win the Iowa caucuses, held fast to his argument warning that "the danger is really us overreacting."
"You're trying to dramatize this that we have to go and treat Iran like we've treated Iraq," Paul said. "You cannot solve these problems with war."
The audience booed Paul, cheering on Bachmann.
Bachmann pointed to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that suggested Iran could be nearing nuclear capabilities.
Iran could soon begin sensitive atomic activities in an underground facility deep inside a mountain, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday, a move that would increase the stakes in a stand-off with big powers demanding Tehran curb such work.
The United States and Israel, Iran's arch-adversaries, have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the long-running nuclear dispute, which has the potential to spark a wider conflict in the Middle East. Iran denies seeking to build a nuclear bomb.
Paul, who wants to reduce U.S. involvement in the world to cut the budget deficit at home, suggesting the report was flimsy at best.
"There is no U.N. report that said that," Paul said. "That is totally wrong on what you just said. That is not true. They produced information that led you to believe that. They have no evidence."
Paul spokesman Gary Howard said after the debate that Paul's views will not cost him because voters already know where he stands on foreign policy.
"People know his views, and he's polling top three," Howard said. "His support is solid. He doesn't lose votes once he's got them."
Howard said that "people always misconstrue his positions," and that while Paul is for a strong national defense, he is not in favor of starting wars "out of the blue."