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Paul views acts by West as provoking war vs. Iran; Says sanctions may lead to oil showdown at strait

Defending himself against accusations of isolationism, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul told voters in Iowa on Thursday that the West's sanctions against Iran are provocative acts that are likely to lead to war in the Middle East.

Paul, one of the leading contenders for Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, said Iran would be justified in responding to the sanctions by blocking the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. He compared the West's sanctions to a hypothetical move by China to block the Gulf of Mexico, which Americans would consider an act of war.

The Texas congressman also said he would not respond militarily to keep the strait open -- because he would not consider the closing of the strategic waterway an act of war against the United States. But if he were president, he would report to Congress on the issue, leaving it up to lawmakers to declare war if they wanted.

"I think we're looking for trouble because we put these horrendous sanctions on Iran," Paul told a midday audience at the Hotel Pattee here.

He said the Iranians are "planning to be bombed" and understandably would like to have a nuclear weapon, even though there is "no evidence whatsoever" that they have enriched uranium.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann alleged that the former head of her presidential campaign in Iowa was bribed by Paul's campaign to endorse him, even as one of her aides denied the allegation.

The dispute centered on the decision Wednesday by Kent Sorenson, an Iowa state senator who was Bachmann's campaign chairman in the state, to abandon her effort and endorse Paul.

"[Sorenson] told me that he was offered money -- he was offered a lot of money -- by the Ron Paul campaign," she said to reporters. "No one else knows about that conversation other than Kent Sorenson and myself."

Bachmann, who polls show is in the back of the pack in the Iowa race, said Sorenson told her during a phone call this week that he was offered money to support Paul. She declined to say how much money was involved.

Sorenson issued a statement through Paul's campaign denying what he termed Bachmann's "ridiculous allegations."

Paul's campaign earlier sent out a statement by Wes Enos, Bachmann's Iowa political director, also denying the bribery allegation.

Bachmann said in a later interview with CNN that Enos has quit her campaign and been replaced as political director.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, vying with Paul for the lead in Iowa in recent polls, dismissed the Texan's political prospects. "Ron Paul's not going to be our nominee," he said in an interview aboard his Iowa campaign bus with the RealClearPolitics website.

Another candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said he won't drop out of the race, even if he finishes fourth in Iowa, after a new poll showed him with 14 percent, trailing Romney at 25 percent, Paul at 22 percent and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 16 percent.

"There are more than three tickets" out of Iowa, Gingrich told reporters in Sioux City. "Considering that I'm 20 points ahead in some other states, it would be fairly foolish for me not to stay in the race. It is a long way from here to picking the nominee."

For the first time, Santorum became a target. "When he talks about fiscal conservatism, every now and then it leaves me scratching my head because he was a prolific earmarker," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of Santorum. "He loaded up his bill with Pennsylvania pork."

Santorum defended the practice as part of lawmakers' constitutional role as appropriators, telling CNBC that he owed it to Pennsylvanians to bring money to the state. He said that earmarking has been abused since he left office and that, as president, he would support a ban on earmarks.

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