ALTOONA, Iowa | Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul questioned Thursday whether 2016 GOP presidential candidates can be considered true fiscal conservatives if they are liberal with military spending.
That's a question Iowa Republicans heading to their Feb. 1 first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses will have to decide, said Paul, who took aim at GOP rival Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and his plans to boost spending for defense and refundable tax credits that would add to the national debt.
"The real debate we have is over who is a fiscal conservative," Paul told a lunch-hour campaign gathering at the Pizza Ranch restaurant. "Can you be a fiscal conservative if you're liberal with military spending? People have not thought about it this way, and that's why I'm challenging people to rethink their presuppositions and rethink what makes America strong and what makes America great."
Defense spending must be done in the context of an overall budget strategy to better prioritize, allocate and "hold the line" on needed expenditures while squeezing down the size of government along with tax and regulatory burdens on U.S. taxpayers, he said.
"People say, 'What's the biggest threat to our national security?' I think it's our debt, Paul told the group. "I'm a Reagan conservative. I believe in peace through strength, I believe in a strong military, but I don't believe in spending so much that we bankrupt the country."
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Paul said he recently filibustered against a bipartisan federal budget compromise that raised the debt ceiling because it did not address the reform needed to chart a new fiscal direction with strict spending caps for a nation approaching $20 trillion in debt.
"The dirty little secret of Washington and why our country is going bankrupt -- the right wants more money for the military and in an unlimited fashion, and the left wants more money for welfare. It's an unholy alliance. They get together and they spend more money on everything.
"I think defending the country is the most important thing our government does," he said. "But I don't think we're safer projecting power from bankruptcy court."
At Thursday's event, Paul continued an exchange he had with Rubio during Tuesday's GOP presidential debate by criticizing proposals that he said could potentially add $2 trillion to the national debt. Those are boosting spending for the military and refundable tax credits "that have a 25 percent fraud rate." He also said the inspector general indicated a sizable share of credits under the existing program "are going to illegal aliens."
Steve Grubbs, a former state legislator and Iowa GOP chairman who is a top Paul adviser and strategist, likened the Republican race to a professional wrestling "battle royal" in which all the combatants enter the ring and compete until one remains.
Paul told the crowd he is eyeing the top prize when the first tally in the 2016 GOP nominating process is taken in Iowa on Feb. 1.
"Our goal is to win," he said, "not to place, not to show, but to win."