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Huckabee Unveils Ad Only to Disavow It

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Highlights from Mike Huckabee's press conference on Dec. 31, during which he announces he's pulling an attack ad against Mitt Romney. Video by Chet Rhodes & Jackie Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

DES MOINES, Dec. 31 -- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee took an unorthodox gamble in his bid for the presidency Monday, unveiling an attack ad against Republican rival Mitt Romney and then immediately pledging not to run it in the hopes of appealing to the better nature of Iowa voters.

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Flanked by posters his campaign produced to question Romney's credibility, Huckabee decried gutter politics in America but then directed the attention of scores of reporters and television cameras to a movie screen, where he played the 30-second hit piece on Romney's honesty and record.

"I pulled the ad. I do not want it to be run at all," he said. But within minutes, the ad was being played on national television and had been posted on blogs and other Web sites -- without costing his campaign a penny.

The campaign's decision to not buy airtime for the ad came after an internal debate over how to arrest the damage from a week of critical Romney campaign commercials and several highly publicized flubs by Huckabee, whose sudden status as front-runner in the GOP contest here appears to be in jeopardy.

Huckabee has not had a good day in nearly a week as he has tried to respond to attacks by Romney on his Arkansas record and to increasingly skeptical media coverage. A poll released Sunday showed him trailing Romney here after once leading by double digits. Over the weekend, he began telling reporters that a second-place finish would be wonderful.

In the past several days, Huckabee has lashed out at Romney, calling him "dishonest" for airing ads that distort Huckabee's record. In an appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, he accused Romney of "running a very desperate and, frankly, a dishonest campaign." His campaign Web site compares Romney to the "Seinfeld" character George Costanza, who the campaign quotes as saying: "Just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it."

Instead of becoming more disciplined in the face of battle, Huckabee and his campaign have veered off in directions that have not helped his message. Huckabee has had several gaffes in recent days, including an erroneous comment that a large number of illegal immigrants come to the United States from Pakistan. The mistake raised questions about his foreign policy experience.

Huckabee spent all day Sunday filming the ad, flying to Arkansas to produce it and losing a day on the campaign trail as a result. On Monday, his campaign appearances included an early-morning run through the snow and a haircut that became a media circus because it followed his news conference.

On Wednesday, Huckabee is scheduled to leave Iowa -- a virtually unheard-of move on the day before the caucuses -- and head for Hollywood, where he will appear as a guest on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Romney, meanwhile, spent the weekend crisscrossing Iowa with a bus tour called "Strong America." He will use the final day of campaigning to fly around Iowa in a last-minute push for votes.

Huckabee's decision on Monday -- which produced loud snickers from reporters sensitive to hypocrisy -- is the latest gimmick in an unconventional campaign that has captured the fancy of Iowa voters, especially Christian conservatives, with a mix of offbeat humor, anti-business populism and aw-shucks Southern charm. The morning after Christmas, Huckabee went pheasant hunting, earning pictures on front pages everywhere.

Huckabee's poll numbers began to rise a month ago after the campaign started airing its first ad -- a cartoonish spot featuring action hero Chuck Norris. A later ad just before Christmas stirred up controversy by panning across a white bookcase that some said looked like a cross.


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