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.
"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."