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Romney at center of Republican ad battle

Times Staff Writers

Mitt Romney set off the nastiest TV-ad exchange of the 2008 presidential race Friday with new spots in the two early-voting states that sparked quick retaliation from Republican rivals Mike Huckabee and John McCain.

The outbreak came six days before balloting begins in Iowa with the Jan. 3 caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary five days later.

As the ad battle escalated, the leading GOP candidates braved the snows of Iowa in a frenzy of campaigning, from Rock Rapids on the western end of the state to West Burlington on the eastern.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was at the center of the stepped-up conflict. With polls showing that his lead has collapsed in Iowa and is threatened in New Hampshire, Romney aired a spot criticizing Huckabee in Iowa and one against McCain in New Hampshire.

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Within hours, both attacked Romney in response ads.

In his New Hampshire spot, a Romney announcer says McCain “voted against the Bush tax cuts twice. McCain pushed to let every illegal immigrant stay here permanently -- even voted to allow illegals to collect Social Security.”

In the most recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of New Hampshire Republicans who intend to vote, Sen. McCain of Arizona was the second choice, 13 points behind Romney.

McCain did oppose President Bush’s temporary tax cuts but now favors making them per- manent. He has supported steps to legalize undocumented im- migrants who learn English, pass a criminal check, and pay fines and back taxes. He has accused Romney of dis- torting his stand on Social Security.

“I’m familiar with tailspins, and I think he’s in one,” McCain told Fox News.

McCain’s response ad, airing in New Hampshire, aimed straight at Romney’s character. It cites New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the Union Leader in Manchester, as saying that the state’s voters “want a candidate who will look them in the eye and tell them the truth. John McCain has done that. Mitt Romney has not.”

The ad also cites a Concord Monitor editorial that said voters would recognize a “phony” candidate and concluded that “Mitt Romney is such a candidate.”

Speaking to reporters on a campaign bus rolling past snow-covered corn and soybean fields on the way to a stop in Coun- cil Bluffs, Romney called McCain’s ad “a nasty personal attack.”

“It’s mean-spirited,” he said. “Frankly, it tells you more about Sen. McCain than it does about me that he’d run an ad like that.”

Romney’s latest anti-Huckabee ad -- he started running others more than two weeks ago -- reprises accusations that he was soft on crime and illegal immigration when he was governor of Arkansas. It also calls him “soft on government spending.”

“His foreign policy?” an announcer asks. “ ‘Ludicrous,’ says Condoleezza Rice.”

In fact, the secretary of State did not call Huckabee’s foreign policy “ludicrous.” Rather, she used that word last week to rebut Huckabee’s description of Bush’s foreign policy as arrogant and go-it-alone.

Huckabee led Romney by 14 points among Iowa Republican voters in the Times/Bloomberg poll.

In his response ad, which started airing Friday in Iowa, Huckabee said his “opponents and Washington’s special-interest groups have spent millions in desperate and dishonest attacks to tell you why you shouldn’t vote for me.

“My message is clear: Reject their negative campaign. Quit tearing each other down, and start now building up our country for our kids.”

An offshoot of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, has been running TV ads criticizing Huckabee’s fiscal policies.

Campaigning Friday at a theater in Ottumwa, Huckabee accused Romney of distorting his record on taxes and crime. He also pointed to state fee hikes that took effect in Massachusetts when Romney was governor and questioned the sincerity of his opposition to abortion rights.

“Remember this: If someone is dishonest in order to get a job, how can you trust them to be honest when they get the job?” Huckabee asked.

Taking a dig at Romney’s looks, Huckabee said Americans should “make sure when we elect a president, we just don’t elect somebody who is on Pe- ople Magazine’s nicest-looking folks.”

Romney made People’s list of most beautiful people in 2002.

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

joe.mathews@latimes.com

Finnegan reported from Council Bluffs, Mathews from Ottumwa.


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