- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

DES MOINES, Iowa — Mike Huckabee is now betting on “Iowa nice” to carry him to victory here, announcing in a dramatic news conference yesterday he has withdrawn his anti-Mitt Romney attack ad and hopes voters reward him for not retaliating, even as he has been damaged by Mr. Romney’s attacks.

“It’s a huge gamble on my part. We’ll see how it turns out,” the former Arkansas governor said.

But it’s just the latest gamble in what’s the most unorthodox major presidential bid in some time, by the Baptist minister-turned-politician whose campaign is now calling him the front-runner to win Iowa’s caucuses on Thursday.

The newest voter survey shows Mr. Huckabee with a 6-point lead over Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts — down from a substantial lead in other polls, but still far better than the low single-digits he polled here this summer.

The Iowa Poll, which was posted last night on the Web site of the Des Moines Register, had Mr. Huckabee at 32 percent, Mr. Romney at 26 percent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona at 13 percent, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 9 percent each.

The survey of 800 likely Republican caucus-goers, which was taken from Thursday to Sunday, has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points and is the last poll to be released before Thursday’s caucuses.

Mr. Huckabee measures his own progress by Pizza Ranch — a chain of dozens of pizza parlors spanning the state, and which all seem to have a backroom perfect for Iowa-type retail politicking.

Four months ago, in the run-up to the Iowa Republican straw poll, Mr. Huckabee was speaking to audiences like the half-dozen who showed up at a Pizza Ranch in Spencer one August morning. That crowd included a videographer from the Arkansas Democratic Party hoping to catch him in a stumble, and a woman in town from Washington state visiting relatives who decided to come see what Iowa campaigning was all about.

Now Mr. Huckabee packs hundreds into his Pizza Ranch appearances, as he did last week at the franchise in Pella, where he spent more than an hour and shook scores of hands.

“It always thrills me when this many people are willing to pile into the back of a Pizza Ranch,” he said before starting into a wide-ranging pitch for secure borders, scrapping the tax code and criticizing the growing gap between the rich and poor.

He has built a volunteer organization on the backs of religious conservative activists, and has tried to deflect the incoming fire over past positions that has accompanied his rise in the polls.

Seeking to deflect attacks on his record on immigration, Mr. Huckabee has pivoted entirely, embracing one of the stricter anti-illegals plans out there. He campaigned in Iowa this weekend with James Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, which helped bring attention to the government’s failure to secure the borders. And he has done all this while being outspent 20-to-1, according to his calculations, and while keeping mostly to a positive message.

To say Mr. Huckabee’s campaign has been unusual is to understate the case, and yesterday’s events proved it.

He conducted a news conference from a barber’s chair — he paid $18 for a haircut and $14 for a shave — and he toured his campaign headquarters, where entire families, including grade-school-aged children, were making phone calls to try to win over last-minute supporters.

Just outside, three antiwar protesters who had been chanting “Who would Jesus bomb?” were arrested for blocking the entrance to the headquarters.

But the extraordinary event of the day was the news conference he called to declare he wouldn’t air an attack ad on Mr. Romney — which he immediately followed up by showing the ad to a room full of reporters and TV cameras. It attacked Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, for never having carried out an execution, for supporting gun control and for increases in state fees.

Mr. Huckabee cut the ad Sunday afternoon, taking the entire day off from the campaign trail and flying back to Arkansas to film it. His staff said they sunk $30,000 into the production.

The news conference originally was supposed to be to release the ad, but Mr. Huckabee said he had a late change of heart that surprised even his own campaign staff.

“About an hour ago, I just decided that’s not the way we want to run it,” he said of his campaign, adding that he thinks it’s time for a change in politicking, and “it might as well start here; it might as well start with me.”

It was only last week that Mr. Huckabee began a harsh counterattack on Mr. Romney, calling him dishonest and questioning his fitness to be president.

Mr. Romney’s camp said Mr. Huckabee is withering and said that denouncing attack ads and then showing one to reporters was an odd move.

“Mike Huckabee has turned from nice to very hot-tempered now that his record has been examined by voters,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. “It’s Mike Huckabee’s record. It’s definitely a tough record for him to defend, but it’s still a record that belongs to Mike Huckabee.”

Mr. Huckabee repeatedly said yesterday that he had to show reporters the ad to prove his campaign really had produced it.

He said Mr. Romney’s attacks have hurt his support, and said his decision not to “counterpunch” was a risk. Still, his Iowa campaign chairman, Bob Vander Plaats, acknowledged it also would have been a gamble for Mr. Huckabee to go negative himself, since many of his supporters have said they are backing him for staying positive despite the attacks.

That was a theme repeated by several supporters at a weekend event in Indianola, including by one woman who said his positive campaign was the reason she drove more than two hours to hear him.

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