Nice-guy Huckabee fires back in Iowa

Indianola, Iowa — Indianola, Iowa -- An affable manner and wisecracking style helped Mike Huckabee vault to the top of the Republican presidential field. But the power of his counterpunch might determine whether he's still there after this week's Iowa caucuses.

With the first voter test of the 2008 campaign just three days away, Huckabee is scrambling to stop Mitt Romney from overtaking him as a tight caucus contest grows intensely personal. He's striking back after weeks of attacks on his record as Arkansas governor from a variety of critics, led by Romney, while also confronting new questions about his lack of foreign policy experience.


Yesterday, he scrapped his only Iowa campaign stop to film a new round of TV ads. His national campaign chairman, Ed Rollins, has signaled that Huckabee would respond to Romney in new commercials if it was clear that he was slipping, though a campaign spokeswoman would not confirm whether the new ads take on Romney directly.

At times, Huckabee has sounded almost resentful as he tries to hold off Romney, a wealthy venture capitalist and former Massachusetts governor.


"I did not grow up privileged. I did not grow up with a last name that opened the door. In fact, my last name probably closed a few," Huckabee told voters here over the weekend. "Never in my life did I ever remember somebody asking my dad would he be willing to come out and endorse a candidate. Because they didn't think that his opinion mattered. He was just a working guy that worked two jobs."

Romney, whose father ran one of Detroit's automakers and became Michigan's governor, is outspending all other Republicans in Iowa. Much of that money has gone into negative TV ads and mail pieces against Huckabee.

"Mitt Romney's every day flooding your television sets telling you that I'm a bum," Huckabee said at a campaign event on Saturday. A conservative group, the Club for Growth, is also filling the airwaves with commercials that call Huckabee a big spender and criticize his support for raising taxes as governor. Unable to resist a punchline, even with his candidacy on the line, Huckabee joked, "I could have saved those guys a lot of money. My wife [would] tell you for free, 'I'm a bum.' "

Huckabee said he had to defend himself against what he called "off-the-charts" accusations by his critics, including Romney, who has repeatedly attacked him for granting commutations and pardons to felons in Arkansas, including 12 murderers. Huckabee has tried to turn the issue back on Romney, accusing him of rejecting valid claims for pardons in Massachusetts in order to protect himself against political attacks.

In recent days, events overseas have created new problems for Huckabee, whose lack of foreign policy credentials and short bench of national security advisers have led to stumbles. He didn't know that President Pervez Musharraf had lifted Pakistan's state of emergency two weeks ago. And when he tried to shift attention from Benazir Bhutto's assassination to the danger of a Pakistani terrorist slipping across the U.S.-Mexico border, he mangled the facts.

Yesterday, though, he successfully navigated a series of questions about Pakistan on NBC's Meet the Press, including answering correctly that the country has more Sunni than Shiite Muslims. But former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who trails far behind the leaders, told Fox News that Huckabee's recent remarks about foreign policy "are not consistent with someone who understands the nature of the world that we live in."

A renewed focus on foreign policy could hurt Huckabee with late-deciding voters in Iowa, whose precinct caucuses have historically boosted the prospects of winning candidates and diminished the also-rans.

"Iowans break and they break late," said Bob VanderPlaats, state chairman of Huckabee's campaign, which is trying to minimize last-minute defections and turn out his soft supporters.


Republican voter Ron Ehresman, a recently retired middle school teacher, said he's trying to make up his mind among Romney, Huckabee and John McCain. The 60-year Republican - whose son, an Air Force pilot, has logged many flight hours in the Middle East - said national security, including the situation in Pakistan, is his top concern.

Reflecting the complex voter calculations that make predicting caucus results hazardous, Ehresman said he'd probably back Huckabee on caucus night, even though "I'm afraid he's too nice a guy" to be an effective president. "At this point, I'd like to see Huckabee do very well in Iowa," he added, though he said he thinks that a McCain-Huckabee ticket would be best for the country.

Huckabee, who claims Romney is outspending him 20-1 in Iowa, is relying on an informal network of evangelicals, home-schoolers, hunters and economic conservatives who, like him, want to replace the income tax with a national sales tax.

Romney, by contrast, has invested in the sort of traditional campaign organization that has won Iowa in the past. He's promoting his background in business and government and as the rescuer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, while trying to limit Huckabee's appeal to social and religious conservatives.

"I know how to make change work," he told voters at Newton, Iowa, cafe. "I won't embarrass you in the White House."

Romney's ads portray Huckabee as soft on crime, drugs and illegal immigration, and blur differences between their records on social issues, such as abortion. A new Romney attack ad quotes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's description of Huckabee's foreign-policy views as "ludicrous."


In response, Huckabee is attacking Romney's character, questioning the sincerity of his conversion to the anti-abortion cause and warning voters that they can't trust a president who wins the job through dishonesty.

The more aggressive tone of the Republican contest risks hurting both Romney and Huckabee in Iowa, whose activists are notoriously hostile to negative campaigns. John Kerry won the Democratic caucuses four years ago after the leading contenders waged a bitter fight that turned off many voters

But with Huckabee and Romney far ahead of the rest of the field, it's not clear that a third candidate could gain enough to challenge them for first place.

McCain, who has spent relatively little time and money in Iowa, may be positioned for a caucus surge, according to Republican politicians. He could finish closer to second place than polls suggest, said VanderPlaats, the Huckabee adviser.

Huckabee has repeatedly praised McCain as his "hero," and yesterday McCain came to Huckabee's defense.

"Look, I'm flattered that Governor [Romney] would be attacking me. He's attacking Huckabee in Iowa, who's a good man. And that shows that they're worried," McCain said on ABC's This Week. "That's been his history, of spending a lot of his money attacking his opponents when they get close.


Romney, at an Iowa campaign stop yesterday, defended his decision to highlight differences with his rivals.

"In this process, people have a real battle for success," he said, according to the Associated Press, "but I consider these guys friends."