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It's Huckabee on offense, or not

He purportedly turns the other cheek on an anti-Romney strategy. Still, he shows an attack ad to reporters anyway.

January 01, 2008|Joe Mathews and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — In the last days before Thursday's Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee, lacking money and staff, is adopting a freewheeling and inexpensive strategy of asymmetrical political warfare -- inviting reporters to a pheasant hunt, a morning jog and a haircut -- to needle his better-funded, better-organized challenger, Mitt Romney.

As the campaign enters a new year, the daily battle of visual images increasingly pits Huckabee's Doo Dah Parade-style theatrics against Romney's Rose Parade of stately, flowery events. On Monday, Huckabee's approach culminated in the most head-spinning news conference of the presidential campaign.

Huckabee aides had set the stage -- a hotel conference room here -- for the former Arkansas governor to attack Romney. Three poster boards rested on easels to display Romney's gaffes and policy reversals. A blue backdrop read "Enough Is Enough" in reference to Romney's TV ad attacks on Huckabee. And a screen had been set up to project a new Huckabee ad attacking the former Massachusetts governor for his record on crime, healthcare, spending and abortion.

Enter Huckabee, who immediately pulled a switcheroo.

He announced that, in the hour before, he had had a change of heart. He would not air the ad after all, nor would he release a "multi-page dossier" on Romney. He suggested he couldn't in good conscience support a negative attack.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Huckabee ad: A Jan. 1 article in Section A about an anti-Romney ad that Mike Huckabee pulled then showed to reporters said Huckabee's campaign had paid $75 for the candidate's haircut and shave at an Iowa barbershop. Des Moines barber Scott Sales said he charged $32 and was paid $60, including tip.

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" he asked, borrowing without attribution from the Gospel of Mark.

Then, after a few audio problems, he showed the reporters the negative ad, which was made Sunday. By doing so, Huckabee ensured the ad would be aired -- for free -- by television news programs, and possibly run far more often than if he had simply paid to put it on TV. He said this weekend that his campaign had only about $2 million in the bank.

"We all can talk about changing the tone of politics and the direction and the way we elect our officials," he said. "And sometimes we talk about it and then we end up doing the same things, and at some point we have to decide, can we change the kind of politics and the level of discourse? And so I've got to believe that we can, but it's got to start somewhere, and so it might as well start here, and it might as well start with me."

When Huckabee decided to show reporters the ad he had pulled, they laughed derisively and began to shout questions during a thoroughly postmodern exchange.

Reporters accused Huckabee of cynically playing the ad to get more attention for its attack on Romney -- while trying to appear positive by saying he was pulling the ad. In response, Huckabee suggested the reporters were cynical for thinking he was cynical. That in turn drew questions about whether Huckabee's accusation of media cynicism was cynical.

Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University in Des Moines, called the ad "a verbal baseball bat."

"It sends a message, 'Don't fool around with me. I can be tough,' " he said. "The other message is: 'I'm such a nice guy. I'm going to turn the other cheek.' "

While some might discern "a certain political calculation," Goldford added, as long as television stations broadcast the spot in their coverage of the campaign, Huckabee "gets to have it both ways."

It was not the first time Huckabee has introduced provocative language or imagery into the campaign only to plead innocence later. In December, he raised Romney's religion with the New York Times, asking, "Don't Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers?" He later apologized for what is a common anti-Mormon slur.

Before Christmas, he aired a paid TV ad that showed a cross in the background. Huckabee said the cross was merely the outline of a bookshelf and was inadvertent. The controversy gave the ad a much broader audience on TV news programs and on the Internet.

Romney, for his part, continued to play the straight man Monday, sticking to an intense schedule of seven events in towns through northeastern and central Iowa.

Outside a pizza restaurant in Independence, Romney said: "The press conference which Gov. Huckabee had today I think is confusing to the people of Iowa." Romney's spokesman said the campaign was "not the place for ball-juggling or pratfalls and stunts."

Stunt or not, Huckabee's news conference allowed the former governor to dominate campaign news for the day. What was unclear was whether this had been his intent.

Although he said he made the decision without calculation less than an hour beforehand, Huckabee seemed to signal his intentions early Monday morning on NBC's "Today" show. "We're not going to be releasing negatives ads," he told Matt Lauer.

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