December 29, 2007

'Tis The Season For Attack Ads

Oh, let's just call it comparative advertising, shall we? The Iowa caucuses start in less than a week, and at least one Republican candidate has decided to let it all hang out. Mitt Romney released a negative ad against John McCain earlier for New Hampshire, and now he's got one in rotation in Iowa against Mike Huckabee that has the Arkansas governor seeing more red than a Christmas sweater:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a fresh attack Friday on rival Mike Huckabee, raising the stakes in the tense two-person contest in Iowa that could prove critical to both candidates' hopes of winning the GOP nomination.

A few months ago, Romney appeared the likely winner of Iowa's leadoff caucuses, having outspent and outhustled former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee. But Romney never anticipated the groundswell of support for Huckabee, and he returned to Iowa on Friday as an underdog determined to overtake the surging former governor of Arkansas.

Romney's challenge is complicated by the fact that he, alone among the leading Republican candidates, is fighting a two-front battle -- hoping not only to avoid a loss here to Huckabee but also to fend off a strong challenge from McCain in New Hampshire. Twin defeats could leave his candidacy crippled, and the battle in New Hampshire intensified Friday as McCain and Romney traded new attack ads that left the former governor crying foul.

Negative begets negative, as Romney quickly discovered. John McCain had held back an attack at against Mitt, casting him as a "phony", but has now released it after Romney's ad surfaced on Thursday. Romney called it "nasty" and "mean-spirited", and took the position that McCain did this before against George Bush in 2000.

Mike Huckabee called Romney's ad "desperate and dishonest", which Romney characterized as a personal attack -- and challenged Huckabee to correct any factual misstatements in the ad. Huckabee aide Ed Rollins says they may go negative by Monday, given the direction of the advertising, but Huckabee's got bigger problems than that at the moment. He's given Romney fodder for another negative ad, one that could be very effective:

In recent days, Mike Huckabee has tried to answer long-standing questions about who is on his foreign policy team. On Friday morning, he listed former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton as someone with whom he either has “spoken or will continue to speak.”

At a Thursday evening press conference, Huckabee said, "I've corresponded with John Bolton, who's agreed to work with us on developing foreign policy.”

Bolton, however, has a different view. “I’d be happy to speak with Huckabee, but I haven’t spoken with him yet,” said Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

This follows two embarrassing gaffes on Pakistan after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. In one, he mistook the shared Afghan border as being on the eastern side of Pakistan instead of the north-west side, and in the other he accidentally used the word "apologies" instead of condolences. The border error is minor, but the use of the word "apologies" has distinct diplomatic meaning, and if used by a President would have raised eyebrows around the world.

Those errors show inexperience. If Huckabee claimed to have been briefed by John Bolton without it actually happening, that shows something else. Clearly, Huckabee wants conservatives to trust his instincts on foreign policy, and Bolton remains very popular with the hawks, for good reason. Getting Bolton on his side would be quite the coup -- but claiming him to be when he isn't makes Huckabee look more than a little desperate and flailing.

Huckabee has made some unforced errors this week, and Romney will probably exploit them in an attempt to hold onto a state he should have had won months ago. Even if Huckabee slips, the Romney decline in Iowa does not bode well for his staying power. If McCain can beat him in New Hampshire, Romney will get no benefit of momentum even with an Iowa win. He needed to push back against his rivals -- and that will set the race on a negative path.

If these three candidates stay on the Dark Side of the (political) Force, could it give an opening to Rudy Giuliani and even Fred Thompson, who have kept their messages positive and self-focused?


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