Tony Leys
5:00 PM, Dec 31, 2011

Le Mars, Ia. – Iran cannot be allowed to gain a nuclear weapon, Mitt Romney said here this afternoon.

“Right now, the greatest danger that America faces and the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he said. He said Iran sponsors terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, and it helps arm insurgent fighters who kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

“At this stage, what we have to do is to aggressively put in place crippling sanctions against Iran as long as they pursue their nuclear program,” Romney told roughly 250 people crowded into the Family Table restaurant here.

Romney said he also would support Iranian dissidents who want to overthrow the hostile, theocratic government now running the country. He also said the United States should develop military plans to be used against Iran. He said he hoped that such plans would never be put into effect. “But the Iranians will understand that we have prepared credible military options, that they’ll know there is a consequence of becoming nuclear.”

Romney, who was answering a question from an audience member, seemed to be trying to distinguish himself from rival Republican candidate Ron Paul on the issue. Paul has suggested that a nuclear Iran wouldn’t be more dangerous than existing nuclear-armed nations, such as Russia, Pakistan and India, and he has warned that the United States is on a dangerous path toward starting another war.

Vickie Hemmingson, an undecided voter attending Romney’s rally, noted that Romney didn’t name Paul while differing with the Texas congressman’s stance on Iran. “That’s probably to his credit,” she said of Romney’s tactic. She added that Romney’s Iran answer helped push her closer to supporting Romney, but she remained undecided.

Other themes: Romney said he would veto the “Dream Act” if Congress passed it. The controversial proposal would open paths to legal residency for illegal immigrants who were brought into the country as children, stayed out of trouble and entered college or served in the military. Romney said he would support allowing illegal immigrants who served in the military to work toward citizenship, but he rejects the rest of the act. He also reiterated that he disagrees with providing in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. “If I’m the president of the United States, I want to end illegal immigration so that we can protect legal immigration.”

Romney also answered a question from a 9-year-old boy who said he had autism and asked what the candidate would do to strengthen research on such conditions. “I believe one of the places that we spend our funds wisely is on research and science where we think we can make a difference in the lives of our citizens, to cure disease and to cure conditions that cause disability,” Romney said. He added that such financing decisions should be made by scientists, not politicians.

Place in the race: Romney has been in the lead or close to it in most recent Iowa polls. He’s been drawing strong crowds in Iowa over the past week after campaigning only sporadically here for most of the year.

The candidate’s day: Romney has stepped it up in the past week. Later Saturday, he was to make a stop in Sioux City. Sunday, he’s to visit Atlantic and Council Bluffs.