Romney Eyes Huckabee Lead

Traveling across Western Iowa, Mitt Romney responded angrily to the latest negative ad by rival John McCain, who uses the spot to call Romney a phony. In the comments to reporters on the bus, Romney also defended his own negative ad against Mike Huckabee, saying the allegations in it are true. Video by Michael D. Shear/The Washington Post
By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 29, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 28 -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a fresh attack Friday on rival Mike Huckabee, raising the stakes in the tense two-person contest in Iowa that could prove critical to both candidates' hopes of winning the GOP nomination.

A few months ago, Romney appeared the likely winner of Iowa's leadoff caucuses, having outspent and outhustled former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee. But Romney never anticipated the groundswell of support for Huckabee, and he returned to Iowa on Friday as an underdog determined to overtake the surging former governor of Arkansas.

Romney's challenge is complicated by the fact that he, alone among the leading Republican candidates, is fighting a two-front battle -- hoping not only to avoid a loss here to Huckabee but also to fend off a strong challenge from McCain in New Hampshire. Twin defeats could leave his candidacy crippled, and the battle in New Hampshire intensified Friday as McCain and Romney traded new attack ads that left the former governor crying foul.

Romney's hopes for winning here now depend on what his advisers believe is a superior organization that will turn his supporters out to the caucuses next Thursday, as well as a potentially risky strategy of remaining on the attack in television ads and other media in a state whose voters have often penalized candidates for being too negative.

Romney's new Iowa ad accuses Huckabee of being at the helm of a big-spending government in Arkansas, providing college benefits to the children of illegal immigrants and issuing more than 1,000 pardons and commutations as governor. The ad also quotes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying Huckabee's criticisms of President Bush's foreign policy were "ludicrous." It follows previous Romney assaults on crime and immigration, and dovetails with ads from the conservative Club for Growth accusing Huckabee of raising taxes as governor.

But even as Romney's campaign continued its bombardment of Huckabee on television, the candidate tempered his public comments, offering a softer, more emotional stump speech and being joined by his wife, Ann, as he began a final bus tour on Friday that will carry him throughout the state before the caucuses.

Huckabee, during a conference call with reporters Friday, called Romney "desperate and dishonest" in his attacks. In a pointed rebuttal, he argued that, under his leadership, Arkansas' penalties for possession of methamphetamine were four times as severe as those in Massachusetts, and he said his pardon policy was based on common sense and compassion that Romney never demonstrated as governor.

Romney fired back: "If there's anything in the [new] ad that's not accurate, I'd like to know what it is."

Huckabee said that even a second- or third-place finish here next week would represent a remarkable story, given where he stood a few months ago, and would give his candidacy a strong boost. But a loss in Iowa could significantly set back Huckabee's hopes, given that he faces major hurdles in New Hampshire five days after the caucuses.

A top Huckabee adviser fretted openly about the possible impact of a weekend of unanswered negative ads aimed at the underfinanced former Arkansas governor and about how the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto could prompt voters to evaluate candidates' credentials differently than they did a week ago.

"We don't see an erosion yet," Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who recently joined Huckabee's campaign, said in a telephone interview. "But you hope over the course of the next few days they don't start eroding our base."

Huckabee pointed out that he is the target of attack ads from both Romney and outside groups, but Rollins said the campaign had not anticipated that Romney would unleash a new attack on Friday. He added that Huckabee is determined to remain on a positive track but warned that the campaign will reevaluate that position on Monday.

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