Candidates ring in 2008 on the trail

Faced with conflicting polls, single-digit temperatures and a merciless calendar, the top candidates for the two major-party presidential nominations entered the new year at a frenzied pace today, with several candidates parking campaign buses and taking to the air before Thursday night's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

With the Democratic race in a dead heat, Barack Obama picked up some possible help after U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio directed his supporters to move to the Illinois senator in precincts in which Kucinich did not have enough backing to win a delegate.

And while Republican Mike Huckabee seemed to honor his New Year's Eve resolution to campaign nicely, his chief rival Mitt Romney continued sharp criticism of the former Arkansas governor.

Romney told reporters at a suburban house party that he "was disappointed yesterday to see that Gov. Huckabee attacked the president by suggesting that he was not well versed in national foreign policy affairs for supposedly not having read the National Intelligence Estimate at any time over the last four years."

Huckabee was quoted in the Quad City Times newspaper under a headline that said Huckabee "pokes fun" at Bush in an attempt to counter perceptions that he himself has a weak grasp of foreign policy. Huckabee was criticized last month for saying he was unfamiliar with the intelligence estimate, which concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

"President Bush didn't read it for four years; I don't know why I should read it in four hours," Huckabee was quoted as saying.

Romney swung hard at the political equivalent of a hanging curve ball.

"I'm not sure whether Gov. Huckabee meant the attack as a joke, but this is not a time to be mocking our president, and it was, I think, in bad taste," Romney said. "I think that we should come together and recognize the great work our president is doing and not take our rhetoric or our plays from the Democratic playbook."

Huckabee, who held a news conference Monday to unveil and then announce that he would not air an anti-Romney ad, did not mention Romney by name during his midday appearances. But Huckabee appeared with a banner that read, "Enough is enough," which was the title of the ad he canceled in what he said was a first step toward returning to a positive campaign.

Huckabee found himself on the defensive with reporters who questioned whether his continued use of the "enough is enough" slogan was disingenuous.

"It's still valid," Huckabee said. "Enough is enough of the negative campaigning. . . . The Tonya Harding school of politics has to stop."

But Huckabee said that "probably if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't show" the canceled ad, as he did Monday, and said criticism over the news conference was largely a national media creation.

"If they're not Iowa voters, it probably won't matter Thursday night," Huckabee said. "A lot of people I talk to appreciate the fact that we're trying to change the tone of political discussion."

Romney, though, sought to keep the issue alive.

"It does remind you a bit of a person who stands up and says, I'm not going to call my opponent any names, but here are the names I'd call him if I were going to call him names," Romney said. "What he did yesterday didn't fool the media, and I don't think it will fool the people of Iowa either."

In the Democratic race, Sens. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to capitalize on conflicting polls that showed each of them in the lead here.

A Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus-goers found 32% support for Obama, compared with 25% for Clinton of New York and 24% for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. That has all three candidates in a statistical tie -- and with a third of poll respondents saying they could still change their minds, the race remains wide open.

"The polls look good, but understand this, the polls are not enough," Obama told a raucous crowd of several hundred at Des Moines' Roosevelt High School before hopping a plane for Sioux City. "The only thing that counts is whether or not you show up to caucus. . . . The only poll that's worth paying attention to is Thursday, the poll at 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock on caucus night."

Two other polls listed Clinton first in three-way logjams: The CNN/Opinion Research poll found 33% support for Clinton, 31% for Obama and 22% for Edwards. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll found 30% support for Clinton, 26% for Obama and 25% for Edwards. In both polls the leaders are in statistical ties.

Clinton stuck to the "steady as she goes" tack, telling Iowans during several stops that a careless vote at Thursday's caucus could have devastating consequences. Clinton said the next president would face a raft of unanticipated challenges, putting a premium on the kind of experience she gained as a first lady and U.S. senator -- a key part of her campaign message.

Although she did not mention Obama by name, the argument is a slap at his relatively short tenure in the U.S. Senate and, before that, the Illinois Legislature.

"In life there are all the unexpected and unpredictable challenges and opportunities," she said. "We need a president who is ready on Day One."

Clinton also flashed some humor at her first event, which was held a hotel ballroom. When a cheer broke out from an adjoining conference room, Clinton told the crowd: "That's the overflow room. Either that or it's the end of a great New Year's Eve party."

Times staff writers Maria La Ganga, Joe Mathews and Peter Nicholas also contributed to this report.