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Stakes high, the barbs sharpen

Times Staff Writers

Mitt Romney raced across this snowbound farm state in a private jet. His rival Mike Huckabee made do with a bus.

Romney struck a belligerent tone: He called Huckabee soft on crime and disloyal to President Bush, amplifying the assault with mail, radio and TV attacks.

Huckabee struck back, telling a Davenport crowd that Huckabee’s leniency “would be real news to the 16 people whose executions I carried out” as governor of Arkansas. His manner, though, was relaxed, his barbs less pointed than Romney’s.

With Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses less than two weeks away, the clash between former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and Huckabee has turned into a central drama of the contest that will open the 2008 race for the White House. The brawling grew nastier this week as the two crisscrossed Iowa.

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Nationally, the race for the Republican nomination remains wide open. Two of the contenders thought to be most viable, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have fared poorly in Iowa polls and put their strongest efforts into other states. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who also has faltered in Iowa, is attempting a comeback.

For Huckabee and Romney, however, a strong finish in Iowa is considered crucial to their White House ambitions.

Romney has banked on an Iowa win to propel him to a primary victory five days later in New Hampshire -- and then onward to the nomination. Through the summer and fall, he held a double-digit lead in Iowa, thanks largely to a torrent of early TV advertising.

But Huckabee’s roaring surge recently from afterthought to Republican front-runner in Iowa has upended Romney’s strategy.

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As Romney darted this week from Davenport to West Des Moines, Indianola, Fort Dodge, Orange City and Council Bluffs, he was fighting for survival. For the most part, that entailed hammering away at Huckabee.

Arkansas faced big troubles with methamphetamine abuse during Huckabee’s 10 years as governor, Romney said, yet Huckabee moved to reduce mandatory sentences for users. Romney also suggested that Huckabee was too quick to pardon convicts, boasting of his own refusal to grant reprieves to prisoners in Massachusetts.

“When it comes to deciding who’s going to be the toughest who deals with criminals, there’s no question but that my record suggests that giving out no pardons is a heck of a lot better than giving out 1,033 pardons,” Romney told reporters at a trucking-company warehouse in Fort Dodge.

Romney’s focus on crime follows his accusation that Huckabee was too kind to illegal immigrants in Arkansas, namely by charging their children the same college tuition that legal state residents pay.

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That line of attack persuaded Mel Masuen, 58, a weights-and-measures technician from Le Mars, Iowa, to favor Romney over Huckabee. “I don’t like his history on immigration,” Masuen said of Huckabee, after hearing Romney speak Thursday at a high-tech factory in Orange City.

At a country-club breakfast in Indianola the same day, Romney also poked at Huckabee for writing in Foreign Affairs magazine that the Bush administration had “an arrogant bunker mentality.”

“I thought: How in the world can you say this about this president?” Romney told the crowd. “This president has kept us safe these last six years, and we owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

At a time when Bush remains popular among Republicans, Romney’s campaign was also quick to trumpet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s remarks Friday in response to a question on Huckabee’s criticism. She said, “The idea that somehow this is a go-it-alone policy is just simply ludicrous.”

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Polls show that for Romney, a key problem in Iowa is the sudden swell of support for Huckabee among evangelicals. In an appeal for their support, Romney for months has strongly emphasized family values, especially his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

A “fundamental flaw” of that approach, said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa, is the reluctance of many evangelicals to overlook Romney’s Mormon faith, which they disdain.

“That created a vacuum that Huckabee was able to enter,” Goldford said.

A former Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee invoked religious themes at multiple events on a three-day bus trip around Iowa ending today, with stops along the Missouri River. Voices in the crowds frequently murmured “amen,” particularly when he touched on issues of faith. In a holiday television ad airing in Iowa, he told of celebrating “the birth of Christ.”

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Huckabee used subtle digs to remind Iowans of Romney’s pattern of switching to stands that are more conservative on matters such as abortion.

“The real issue is one of judgment, and do we make decisions based on what’s good for our own political careers, or do we make the decisions that are in consistency with what’s best for the people we’re supposed to serve,” he said at a fog-shrouded golf clubhouse in Dike.

Or, as he put it at the Delaware County Fairground in Manchester: “I didn’t just suddenly decide to be pro-life because ‘Hey, that’ll help me running for president in Iowa.’ ”

At a West Des Moines shopping mall, Huckabee complained that Romney had been “attacking me just ruthlessly in the mail and on television and distorting the record, and I think we need to get the record straightened up and get the truth out there.”

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“I think the desperate position of his campaign is beginning to come through,” he said. “I just want to make sure people look at the whole record and have a chance to take a look at what judgment really looks like.”

He disputed the criticism that he softened penalties for drug crimes, saying he had approved only reductions of mandatory sentences, which remain “harsher in Arkansas than they are in Massachusetts.”

As for his television ad, Huckabee described it at a campaign stop in Ames as a plea to “dial this rhetoric down” and “spend a little time with friends and family, celebrate the birth of Christ, and have a merry Christmas.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

scott.martelle@latimes.com


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