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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

"If we think we're starting to bleed, we've got a book of stuff on him," Rollins said of Romney. "We'll have to do it in person. Either Mike does it or I do it, but it doesn't have the impact of television. If we're really bleeding on Monday, we reserve the right to go back and defend ourselves."

Romney's attacks carry clear risks for his own candidacy, but his advisers, demanding anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the race, said they see no downside to the strategy at this point. "We've been very comfortable contrasting our experience and his, and I don't see any reason why that's going to stop," said one adviser.

Romney, however, was clearly miffed by the response ad McCain put up in New Hampshire on Friday. The ad quotes the Concord Monitor describing Romney as a "phony" and follows a Romney ad attacking McCain on taxes and immigration. Arguing that his ad was a comparison of the two candidates' records, Romney called McCain's ad a personal attack.

"It's nasty. It's mean-spirited," he told reporters on his campaign bus. "Frankly, it tells you more about Senator McCain than it does about me, that he'd run an ad like that."

Romney strategists said that they believe there is time to overtake Huckabee in Iowa and argued that his surge has crested. But Huckabee said Friday that his supporters around the state, many of them evangelical Christians, are "on fire" over his candidacy, and he has repeatedly urged them to deliver a "seismic shock" to the political establishment at next Thursday's caucuses.

Speaking to more than 1,000 people in West Des Moines on Thursday night, Huckabee said, "A week from tonight, you have an opportunity to do something completely different that would utterly confound the political ruling class in this country."

Bhutto's assassination produced a misstep for Huckabee on Thursday when he suggested that he believed Pakistan was still under martial law. At a news conference that night, he broke into a reporter's question to note that it had been lifted two weeks earlier. "The point was . . . would it be reinstated?" He also drew scrutiny for saying at a stop in Pella, Iowa, that "we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border." Several nations outside Latin America, including several other Asian countries, produce more illegal immigrants than does Pakistan.

Huckabee's rise has been fueled by the coalescence of religious and social conservatives in Iowa who once were fractured among three or four other candidates. While assaults on his foreign policy depth have escalated in recent weeks, his appeal has long been grounded both in his conservative views and in his folksy, humorous campaign style.

"Huckabee is living the dream that Fred Thompson was supposed to," said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any campaign, recalling the early enthusiasm among conservatives who expected Thompson to be their champion. "It never happened, and instead it's happening for Huckabee. He is living the authenticity moment, like McCain in 2000."

Romney's effort Friday to display a more personal side to his candidacy appeared aimed at countering that aspect of Huckabee's appeal.

Ann Romney has become a more central participant at rallies and photo ops. At an American Legion post Friday afternoon, she discussed her battle with multiple sclerosis and her husband's decision to let her run with the Olympic torch in Salt Lake City.

"It was with a great deal of emotion that my husband was beside me, ran beside me, and my sons were there with me as my husband passed the torch to me and had me run the torch, as his hero," she told a packed room of about 200 people.

Huckabee has nothing comparable to Romney's organization but will benefit from networks of ministers and home-schoolers who will be recruiting supporters. But Eric Woolson, Huckabee's state director, noted, "You can have all the sophisticated marketing tools in the world, but if the voters aren't comfortable with the message, that doesn't mean they're going to jump on board."

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