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Clarification to This Article
This article describes consultant Mike Murphy as a participant in planning meetings for Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign. Murphy took part in early meetings but left Romney's team at the end of 2005.
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Romney Strategy in Peril With Huckabee's Ascent

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That group conceived the plan for Romney, who was hardly known outside of his home state and Utah.

"There are two ways to run: run as the front-runner, or you play the breakthrough/early-state strategy," said one of Romney's longtime advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You don't get to choose."

The adviser added: "You burrow down deep and spend time building these organizations, going back over and over and over again. You are really playing for three years for about three weeks."

The idea from the beginning was to focus on Romney's business credentials and his reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver, as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and as governor of Massachusetts. It was assumed that Romney would have to work hard for acceptance in Iowa, where as many as 85 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers are against abortion rights.

"He's a Midwestern guy. He's from Michigan. His family was always well received in Iowa," a longtime adviser said. "We felt pretty good that we could do well in Iowa. And it was self-evident that if you are going to be running against John McCain, who was known in the party, and Rudy Giuliani, the fifth most famous man in the world, an early-state strategy was really the best -- and perhaps only -- way to establish a rationale."

But Romney advisers concede their candidate has spent more time than they planned talking about social issues. They say that is because rival campaigns have forced him to react, and because of the rise of Huckabee, who has coalesced more of the Christian vote than past candidates.

If Huckabee wins the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, Romney's campaign will have four days to recover before making a stand in New Hampshire, where he is leading in recent opinion polls. Romney aides claim a potential upside for their candidate: Huckabee's meteoric rise has reset expectations for Romney, who will be credited with a meaningful win in Iowa should he pull it off.

Romney no longer talks about Giuliani on the stump. His advisers barely mention former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.). The message has become "all Huck, all the time," though in the past several days Romney also has had to contend with a resurgence by McCain in New Hampshire. Romney last week began a barnstorming of three early-voting states by assailing Huckabee as a liberal, adding his own voice to new negative television ads and to mailings that his campaign has begun churning out every day.

On immigration, Romney cited Huckabee's support for a bill that would have granted in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. On crime, he highlighted the 1,033 pardons and commutations Huckabee granted as governor. On the economy, he told reporters that Huckabee presided over a state budget that grew from $6 billion to $16 billion.

"I'm convinced that as people take a close look, that the good, conservative Republicans of South Carolina will be supporting a conservative candidate like myself and they won't be supporting Governor Huckabee," Romney said, campaigning in South Carolina on his way to Iowa. "But time will tell."

Romney received a boost last week when Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed him, saying he believed Romney would protect the country's borders.

Huckabee spent the week basking in newfound popularity in Iowa. A month ago, he was having events in pizza parlors with 40 people and almost no press. Last week, 200 people packed into a raucous event in West Des Moines, with 50 more waiting outside.

Huckabee has described Romney as "desperate," and his descriptions of Huckabee's record as "dishonest," "misleading" and "unfair." For the moment, Romney's advisers insist, they feel apprehension but not panic. "Would we like it to be different? Of course," said one adviser who has been with Romney for years. "You have to trust the team. You have to trust the strategy. You have to trust what your original instinct was. I think that's where the governor is."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.


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