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GOP candidates compete to see who can keep it real

Huckabee and McCain question Romney's sincerity. He doesn't back down one bit.

December 27, 2007|Peter Wallsten and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

OSCEOLA, IOWA — Grasping a freshly killed pheasant and hoisting a shotgun over his shoulder, Mike Huckabee on Wednesday invited reporters to witness what has become one of the standard motifs of Republican presidential politics: the candidate out hunting, like a regular guy.

But the undertone was clear: Huckabee was casting himself as an authentic sportsman, unlike chief rival Mitt Romney, who last spring had claimed to be an avid hunter before admitting that he had preyed mostly on "small varmints" -- and infrequently at that.

In fact, Huckabee said, not only had he hunted varmints himself -- in addition to deer, ducks, antelopes and, now, pheasants -- but he also was an experienced varmint-eater, having downed his share of fried squirrel, biscuits and Coke as a college student.

"I figured out you could put grease in a popcorn popper and heat that thing up, and you could cook anything," he said in an interview. "So we fried squirrel."

And with that the contest for the world's most powerful job centered not on policy and substance in the run-up to next week's Iowa caucuses, but on the question of authenticity.

In recent days, Romney's rivals for the nomination have decided that is the best point of attack against the former Massachusetts governor, who has lost his lead in Iowa to Huckabee and is trying to hold on in New Hampshire against a resurgent Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Their effort has been aided by Romney's own missteps, and by two recent New Hampshire newspaper "anti-endorsements" of him. Over the weekend, the liberal Concord Monitor called Romney a phony. On Wednesday, the conservative Union Leader of Manchester, which has endorsed McCain, said that despite an "expertly rehearsed sales pitch . . . the more Mitt Romney speaks, the less believable he becomes."

The fight for authenticity comes at a crucial time: The Iowa caucuses will help decide which candidates gain or lose momentum heading into the flurry of voting across the country in January and February.

For Romney, the issue is particularly troublesome. He has spent millions of dollars over the last year courting key Republican constituencies in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping wins in those early states will propel him to the nomination. But in recent weeks he has been forced to defend his claim that his father marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to explain why he hired a landscaping company that employed undocumented workers despite his tough stance against illegal immigration.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll earlier this month underscored Romney's challenge: He ranked last when voters were asked which GOP candidates were "best at saying what they believe, rather than saying what they think the voters want to hear."

On Wednesday, Huckabee's message was not subtle. Wearing an orange-and-gray hunting jacket and an orange cap, he told reporters gathered on an ice-covered field that he brought a "level of authenticity and credibility to the campaign."

He appeared comfortable wielding the 12-gauge shotgun, chatting with reporters as he emptied shells from the firearm. He said he had successfully shot one bird and missed a couple of others -- but had held back on other shots to avoid felling his campaign manager, who was standing nearby.

In an interview shortly after the pheasant hunt, Huckabee offered some of his sharpest criticism yet of Romney. He accused the former Massachusetts governor of hypocrisy for taking him to task over criticizing Bush administration foreign policy when Romney himself once called the Iraq war a mess.

"Romney won't own up to his own words, but he wants to challenge everyone else's," Huckabee said. "I think that's what disturbs me about Romney, is his own statements were probably as harsh as mine."

But Romney ceded no ground on the point of authenticity Wednesday, instead arguing that he was the lone true conservative in the GOP field. His calls for tax cuts and a strict crackdown on illegal immigration, he said, set him apart.

While campaigning in New Hampshire, Romney noted that McCain's opposition in the Senate to President Bush's tax cuts proved that he didn't "learn the lesson of Reagan 101 that lowering taxes builds the economy."

Romney's campaign has aired a barrage of attack ads in Iowa targeting Huckabee's support -- as governor of Arkansas -- of legislation to grant in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants. On Wednesday, Romney also assailed McCain for his past sponsorship of a measure that would have put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

McCain on Wednesday cited the Union Leader editorial, which said that given Romney's changing views on abortion and other issues -- and his new membership in the National Rifle Assn. -- his lines seemed "memorized, not heartfelt."

The newspaper wrote that voters "may not agree with McCain on everything, as we don't, but like us, they judge him to be a man of integrity and conviction, a man who won't sell them out, who won't break his promises, and who won't lie to get elected."

"I know something about tailspins," said McCain, alluding to his past career as a Navy fighter pilot. "And it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one."

--

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston in New Hampshire contributed to this report.

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