New Year's Fray

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.


Put down that cup; it's a dry party this year. And the kindness? Not so much. This is New Year's Eve in Des Moines, three days before the Iowa caucuses, and if Robert Burns were alive to see it, he'd need to quaff a right guid-willie waught.

Let's begin the celebration at GOP candidate Mitt Romney's choice of locales: a "non-alcoholic family New Year's Eve celebration," sponsored by a company that insures churches. There's a "toddler zone," a "children's sing-along stage" and, as if people here hadn't seen enough presidential candidates lately, a "caravan of clowns."

Best of all, it ended with fireworks. At 8 p.m. That left Romney enough time to get back to his hotel and watch attack ads before midnight.

As revelers welcomed in the new year across the country Monday night, the candidates observed the tradition in their own way: popping off zingers like champagne corks, tossing insults like confetti, and wearing righteous indignation like top hats.

In the spirit of year-end mirth and merriment, Mike Huckabee held what is likely to qualify as the oddest news conference of the election season. At a downtown Des Moines hotel, the former Arkansas governor played for reporters a slashing new ad of his that attacked Romney on taxes, budget deficits, the death penalty, gun control and abortion, and featured Huckabee calling Romney "dishonest" and taunting: "Iowans deserve better."

Huckabee then declared that, in hopes of "changing the tone of politics," he would not be airing the nasty ad he had just played, with numerous technical glitches, for the cameras. Reporters in the room chortled. "People are going to say it's hypocritical to say you're not going to run an ad, then show it in a room where there are 60 cameras so that everyone can show it on television and run transcripts in newspapers," pointed out CBS News's Nancy Cordes.

"If people want to be cynical about it," Huckabee replied, "they can be cynical about it."

Thank you for permission, Governor.

Let Dick Clark have his New Year's Rockin' Eve in Times Square; in Des Moines this year, it's a New Year's Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Eve. Just as Huckabee accused Romney of being "desperate" and "dishonest," Sen. John McCain's campaign has tossed the words "phony" and "bizarro" at Romney and called him a "small-varmint-gun totin' . . . fantasy candidate." Romney had the chutzpah to call his rivals "nasty" and "mean-spirited" even though he started the attack ads.

When it comes to New Year's jeers, the Democrats haven't dropped the glittering ball, either. Barack Obama said Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy experience amounted to "who I had tea with" -- after a Clinton adviser raised questions about whether Obama had sold drugs.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere,

And gie's a hand o' thine!

And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught

For auld lang syne.

The candidates' New Year's Eve plans fit nicely with their stereotypes of this campaign. Fred Thompson, celebrated for his sloth, scheduled his last event of the day for 1:30 p.m. At the other end, Sen. Chris Dodd, who has been known to raise a glass on occasion, scheduled a 10 p.m. New Year's celebration at "Happy's Place" in Dubuque.

The award for dorkiest revelers went to John Edwards, who planned an "office party" in Mason City -- for 6:30 p.m. -- and Obama, who scheduled a midnight conference call with supporters. Clinton improved slightly on that, scheduling an appearance with her husband at a downtown Des Moines office building.

With such meager offerings, the hundreds of reporters in town had to drink their cups o' kindness at a "Raucous Before the Caucus" party hosted by the Iowa Republican and Democratic parties -- with a cash bar and a cover charge.

Huckabee was the lone candidate to defy his image; the GOP populist who rails against the country-club set scheduled his early-evening party at, uh, a members-only country club. His supporters were greeted by a "Huckabee 2008" ice sculpture, polished serving trays, and a bar stocked with Absolut, Stolichnaya and Tanqueray.

If the image wasn't quite right for the populist, it was not Huckabee's worst event of the day. That distinction went to his lunchtime news conference, at which he drew disbelieving laughter when he simultaneously displayed and disavowed his new attack ad. "You're not going to get a copy of it, so this is your change to see it, then after that, uh, you'll never see it again," Huckabee teased.

"Why are there still five easels up with the attacks?" challenged the Politico's Jonathan Martin. ABC News's Jake Tapper asked whether it might be "too late" to take the high road after Huckabee had compared Romney to "Seinfeld's" George Costanza.

Reporters began to ask each other whether this was Huckabee's "Howard Dean moment." And things didn't improve when he invited them to watch him get a haircut. Three dozen journalists, among them The Post's Libby Copeland, squeezed in to witness the shave, facial massage and haircut, performed by a barber wearing a microphone.

Amid the grooming, Huckabee continued to field questions about the attack ad. "You should've seen the ad I wanted him to run," the barber interjected.

By the time the well-shaved but roughed-up Huckabee arrived at his New Year's Eve party, he had become a man of modest goals. "Tonight, when I put my head on the pillow in 2007," he joked, "I plan not to wake up until 2008." The way things are going out here, even that wasn't guaranteed.

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