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.
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.
Huckabee said the new ad, which says Romney is too dishonest to be president and wrong on gun control, abortion and taxes, was sent to television and radio stations Sunday but will not be broadcast. He said he had made the decision only 10 minutes before his noon news conference, surprising even his top staff.
"The original plan was to show you the two Romney attack ads, then our response to it," he told reporters. "I just realized that this is not how we run our campaign in this state. We've gotten here by being positive."
That drew a sarcastic response from Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. "To say one thing one minute and then turn around and show an attack ad to reporters the next will, obviously, leave folks with a very cynical view of Mike Huckabee and his message," Madden said. "Mike Huckabee has turned from nice to very hot-tempered now that his record has been examined by voters."
The move also was ridiculed by some in the party who said it called into question whether Huckabee is ready to be the GOP standard-bearer.
"Poor Huckabee has gone from being a principled conservative candidate to a political analyst who can't make a decision on strategy," said Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "This effort makes him look weak and will begin a new level of second-guessing that will overwhelm his campaign in the critical homestretch."
The possibility of a Huckabee victory in the 2008 nomination battle has been improbable from the beginning. In the first six months of the campaign, he raised almost no money and was a mere blip in most national and state polls.
He also adopted a unique, populist message for a Republican, one that takes aim at much of his party's establishment by highlighting how different he is from the button-down Romney.
As he seeks to expand his support beyond the conservative evangelicals who put him atop the field, Huckabee increasingly sounds like one of the Democratic candidates who has long been popular here, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
"A lot of the folks on Wall Street have been pummeling me . . . but I'm a champion of the guys on Main Street," Huckabee said Friday in Ottumwa.
Pete Wehner, a former top adviser to President Bush, said he thought Huckabee was "onto something" by emphasizing economic concerns of middle-class Americans but was not expressing them in a way that would win over GOP voters. "It's an interesting test case," Wehner said, "but that message of economic populism goes against the core of Ronald Reagan's message and is out of step with Republican voters."
Several weeks ago, Huckabee seemed to concede that he needed some guidance from an old Washington hand when he hired Ed Rollins, a Republican operative who joined the team with a pledge to help with the intraparty brawl that was sure to come. Rollins said on Sunday that they were producing an ad that would "set the record straight" on Huckabee and Romney.
Rollins stood uncomfortably to the side as Huckabee renounced what Rollins had helped produce for $30,000 the day before. But Huckabee defended Rollins at the news conference, saying that he was staying on as a top adviser.
"I'm responsible for the direction we're going," Huckabee said. "I'm responsible for the decision to pull it."