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Ron Paul gets turn in spotlight at U.S. debate

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - It was showtime at the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday, and the big surprise was the man in the spotlight -- Ron Paul, the longest of longshots.

Paul, a nine-term congressman from Texas and the Libertarian Party candidate for the White House in 1988, stood out in a field of 10 Republican presidential candidates by standing up to front-runner Rudolph Giuliani in a spat over the September 11 attacks.

Paul initiated the exchange with Giuliani, the mayor of New York on September 11, by implying U.S. policies in the Middle East had contributed to the attacks in New York and Washington.

“Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years,” he said.

Asked by a moderator if he was suggesting the United States invited the attacks, Paul said: “I’m suggesting we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it. And they are delighted that we’re over there because Osama bin Laden has said: I am glad you’re over on our sand because we can target you so much easier.”

An irate Giuliani interrupted and asked for a chance to respond.

“That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq,” said Giuliani, who leads national polls in the Republican race.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th,” Giuliani said to wild applause, asking Paul to withdraw the comment.

But Paul, who frequently strays far outside the Republican mainstream, would not back down.

He said the Central Intelligence Agency was right to teach about “blow-back” and the United States cannot “do what we want around the world” without inciting hatred and a response.

Paul voted against defense spending bills and the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq. As a libertarian, Paul believes in limited government. He has proposed a diminishment in the power of the Federal Reserve, and called in the debate for abolishing the Homeland Security Department.

Paul, an obstetrician-gynecologist from the Houston area, barely registers in polls of the crowded Republican presidential field.

His bid for president as the Libertarian candidate in 1988 drew just more than 400,000 votes nationwide.