(Reuters) — When Kentucky Senator Rand Paul 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 is likely to encounter fierce resistance within his party when he argues that its limited-government ideals should apply to foreign policy as well as within the United States.
In contrast to many other likely Republican candidates for the 2016 race, Paul has taken a skeptical approach to foreign wars. He argues that actions like the U.S. participation in NATO air strikes on Libya that helped rebels overthrow former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 can lead to unintended consequences and tie the country down to years of expensive and fruitless nation-building.
That has resonated with younger voters who came of age during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as voters of all ages who worry the country is living beyond its means.
But as Paul, 52, tries to strike a chord with nontraditional Republican voters, he is encountering resistance from many within the party who advocate a more aggressive approach in the Middle East.
Paul’s campaign launch in Louisville on Tuesday came days after a framework agreement struck between Iran and six major powers that aims 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.
Before Paul announced his presidential bid, a political group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America said it would buy television ads that say Paul does not “understand the threat” of a nuclear 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.
The ads, the first major attack ads of the 2016 election campaign, are scheduled to run in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada as Paul visits those states that vote early in the primary process.
Paul and his aides said they are a sign hawks see his campaign as a threat. “They say you’re over the target if you’re drawing flak,” Paul told a news conference in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
NOT ‘BEATING THE DRUMS FOR WAR’
In Louisville and in comments on Wednesday, Paul expressed some doubts about the nuclear deal and insisted that Congress should have to sign off on it. Democratic President Barack 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 on 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.”
Among likely Republican candidates, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said last week the United States should walk away from the deal, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio called it a mistake.
Aides did not detail how Paul would respond to the attack ads, but said the differences between him and his party’s hawkish wing have been exaggerated. They noted Paul believes Iran should be barred from acquiring nuclear weapons, he has backed sanctions against Tehran and 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.
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.
“Suffice to say, there is still much skepticism about Rand from those who believe America has to lead in foreign policy,” Coleman said.
Republican voters are split on the merits of the Iran deal. Some 31 percent of Republican voters favor the deal, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, and 30 percent oppose it. Another 40 percent are undecided.
Paul’s stance was winning some favor with supporters.
Mike Leonard, a 60-year-old forest consultant from Petersham, Massachusetts, said of the Iran agreement, “it’s the best deal you’re going to get.”
“These warmongers like (Senator John) McCain and Lindsey Graham, they’re crazy,” he added.
Rand Paul Faces GOP Criticism for Nuance Stand on Iran