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Playing Catch-Up to Huckabee, Romney Shifts Iowa Strategy

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VIDEO | The former Massachusetts governor speaks with Chris Cillizza in Dubuque, Iowa about his plans to win the Iowa Caucus.
By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com staff writer
Monday, December 3, 2007; 1:36 PM

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- Facing a growing threat from conservative Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said economic and security issues should trump abortion and social issues as Republican voters select their presidential nominee next year.

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"I think Americans recognize that if you are comparing two people based on how long you've been pro-life maybe that should pale in comparison with how are you going to be able to strengthen the dollars, improve our economy, get better jobs for Americans. . . [and] end illegal immigration," he said.

Romney made his comments last Friday in an interview for washingtonpost.com's "PostTalk" program, shortly before a new Des Moines Register poll showed that Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, had overtaken Romney as the Republican frontrunner in Iowa.

Asked about Huckabee's rapid rise, Romney professed little concern - casting himself as the tortoise in the contest. "There have been a bunch of hares that have come out of nowhere, gone to the front of the pack and then slowly drifted back," said Romney. He contrasted those ups and downs with the "slow and steady" progress of his own campaign.

But Huckabee's ascent comes just one month before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, and it was clear from Romney's rhetoric that he takes Huckabee's surge quite seriously.

Romney and his campaign have hammered Huckabee in recent weeks on such hot-button issues as immigration, taxes and spending, yet the former governor and businessman sought to broaden that contrast late last week.

"There is a big difference between us in terms of our life experience," said Romney of Huckabee. "I spent my life in the private sector and then running the Olympics, he spent his life in government. So we have a lifelong politician versus somebody who has been in the business world for most of his career."

In a Sunday appearance on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanapoulos" Huckabee responded to Romney's criticism. "You know, I've mostly been accused of being too long in the church and being a pastor," he said. "Now I'm accused of being a lifelong politician. Translate that into saying I've got more executive experience of actually running a government than anybody running for president, Democrat or Republican, 13 years in all."

During the "PostTalk" interview, Romney also sought to lower expectations for himself in Iowa. "I've always said that this is going to be a very tight race," Romney said, adding: "I have always said I would like to be in the top three finishers." He did acknowledge, however, that he had expected his main Iowa challenger to be former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and not Huckabee.

As for the millions he has spent in the state - a sharp contrast to the hundreds of thousands Huckabee has disbursed - Romney argued the expenditures were entirely necessary, while managing a shot at Giuliani.

"I've got to get known in the early primary states," Romney said, comparing his focus on early states to the strategy used by previous successful candidates including former President Bill Clinton. "I can't sit back and say 'I'm already famous and what do my national numbers look like,'" he said.


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