The remaining Republican presidential hopefuls clashed fiercely over Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, with Ron Paul clearly staking out a position of non-intervention at odds with the others. But by some measures both sides are out of step with GOP voters on the issue.

Republican voters also appear to lack an appetite for engaging Iran militarily at the moment, at least while diplomacy is an alternative.

Americans are not fond of Iran. Half the public sees Iran as an enemy, a number that peaks among Republicans in a national CNN/ORC International poll this spring. Nearly seven in 10 Republicans called Iran’s nuclear efforts a very serious threat to national security in a Quinnipiac University poll, and a similar percentage rated sanctions against the country as ineffective. Half of Republicans in that poll backed military action to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and nearly two in three supported such action if sanctions were unsuccessful.

But Paul’s preference for diplomacy is also shared with many Republicans. More than six in 10 picked “economic and diplomatic efforts” as the best Iran policy right now, according to a November CNN/ORC survey; fewer than one in four chose military action. Paul’s call for eschewing sanctions in favor of free trade agreements, however, stands in stark contrast to his fellow partisans who see Iran as a genuine threat and an enemy. More than nine in 10 Republicans in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll approved of increasing sanctions in an effort to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The schism reflects a central challenge for Paul to win his Party’s nomination. In a long-standing trend tracked by the Pew Research Center most recently this spring, by nearly 2 to 1 Americans see diplomacy rather than military strength as the best way ensure peace, but Republicans see the military as more important than diplomacy.

To reduce the deficit, Paul proposes cutting “military spending, not defense,” contending that a reduced presence around the world will not weaken the nation’s military might. Nearly four in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (39 percent) supported reducing military spending in an October Post-Bloomberg poll, but more, 56 percent, were opposed.

Concern over Muslims also appears to underpin disagreements between Paul and his rivals on Iran. In last Thursday’s debate, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann argued that Iran’s mission is to “extend jihad across the world and eventually to set up a worldwide caliphate. We would be fools and knaves to ignore their purpose and their plan” Paul countered that “to say all Muslims are the same … this is dangerous talk.”

Islam is a concern for many Republicans. Fully two thirds of Republicans voiced an unfavorable view of the religion in a 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with about half of all Americans. And Republicans split about evenly – 43 to 44 percent – on whether mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.

Altogether, Republican skirmishes over Iran and military intervention generally do not seem to have benefitted Paul so far. In Iowa, fully 46 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers in an early-December Post-ABC poll said Paul’s opposition to U.S. military intervention was a major count against him, while fewer than half as many – 22 percent – said it was a major reason to back him.

Paul’s opponents are sharpening their words on Paul’s potential weakness. On Tuesday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich threw a jab at Paul’s foreign policy stance, according to the The Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten. “National security really matters,” Gingrich responded when asked by a reporter about Paul. “Iran really matters. The fact that bad guys attacked the U.S. on 9/11 really matters. People need to take seriously when they go into the caucuses the issue of national security.”

(Side note: A handy tool from The Washington Post’s politics team allows you to examine what GOP candidates said in every televised debate so far)

 Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page

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