Just a few months ago, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's visit to Southern California barely registered a blip, much like his little-noticed long shot of a campaign.
Now that the soft-spoken Huckabee has emerged as the darling of the GOP field and is surging in polls, he has earned the weighty burdens of a true contender: heightened public scrutiny and the not-so-welcome assaults from his GOP rivals.
During a campaign swing through Los Angeles on Monday, the former Arkansas governor had to respond to an attack ad on his record of granting clemency to criminals, criticism about his slight about President Bush's foreign policy, and questions about a 10-year-old comment he made about women subjugating themselves to their husbands.
"It seems that some of my opponents at this point are clearly frustrated that they have spent millions and millions of their dollars and they are now significantly behind me," Huckabee said at a morning news conference, taking a not-so-subtle jab at his chief critic, Republican candidate Mitt Romney. "I think at this time, despicable tactics are the only thing they have left in their arsenal."
Huckabee also had to answer questions Monday about the criminal history of a wealthy Beverly Hills businessman, one of his top financial supporters in California, who was hosting an afternoon fundraiser for him.
Fundraiser C. Frederick Wehba, 60, co-founder of the real estate investment giant BentleyForbes LLC, was convicted in a Texas federal court in 1995 of fraudulently concealing his interest in his Beverly Hills home. At the time, he owed money to a failed Texas financial institution, Vernon Savings & Loan.
"My feeling is that everybody is not only entitled to make mistakes, but to move past them. And obviously he has, and I commend him for that," Huckabee said. "Certainly, if I tried to avoid everybody who's made a mistake, I'd be an awfully lonely man in this world."
Wehba's attorney, Brian Wolf of Los Angeles, on Monday said Wehba only agreed to a plea agreement on the advice of his legal counsel at the time. "He denies any wrongdoing in that matter in Texas," Wolf said, adding that Wehba's sentence was limited to probation.
The candidates' shifting status was evident Monday in ads in Iowa and other early states. Huckabee began airing a spot full of Christian imagery -- the former Baptist minister appears in a red sweater, a Christmas tree behind him and "Silent Night" playing in the background, and asks viewers whether they are "worn out of all the television commercials" that are "mostly about politics."
"It's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ," Huckabee says in the classic positive tones of a front-runner, with a window behind him lighted to emphasize the shape of a cross.
At the same time, however, the Romney campaign released an ad in Iowa that accused Huckabee of supporting, as governor, a reduction in penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine, and criticizing him for granting 1,033 pardons and commutations, including a dozen for convicted murderers.
Huckabee dismissed the attack as an act of desperation by Romney, who has fallen behind him in Iowa polls. "I did something he never had to do, which is carry out the death penalty, 16 times, more than any governor in my state's history. It's hardly soft on crime when you make that tough decision and you actually carry it out," Huckabee said.
He also deflected Romney's insinuation that Huckabee was disloyal to the Republican Party for his comments in the journal Foreign Affairs criticizing the Bush administration's foreign policy as having an "arrogant bunker mentality."
Huckabee said that although he did question some of the Bush administration's policies, he had long supported the president and the decision to deploy a "surge" of troops to Iraq to quell the county's internal strife.
Along with attending two Los Angeles-area fundraisers on Monday, Huckabee held a news conference at a modest Courtyard Marriott near Century City in an effort to boost his profile and campaign coffers before California's Feb. 5 GOP primary.
Huckabee grew testy, however, when asked about a comment he made 10 years ago that women should submit to the leadership of their husbands. He said those comments were related to his position in the church, and that he was referring to the "sacrifice" necessary in marriage by both the husband and wife. He said that he does not believe women should subjugate themselves to their husbands.
"I don't hear any other candidates asked in depth about the nuances of his church's doctrine more than I am," he said. "The best thing to do is for people to see what I did in 10 1/2 years as governor, appointing thousands of people. Did I ever show gender bias? . . . Yes, I did, for women."