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Attacks in presidential campaigns play well, even in the land of nice.
By ADAM C. SMITH and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published January 1, 2008
PELLA, Iowa - Everyone knows Iowans can't stand slash-and-burn campaigning, as Republican retiree Bill Hudson will be happy to tell you.
"Negative campaigning has no place here," he declared in an overcrowded and overheated coffee shop while waiting to hear Mitt Romney.
And who's Hudson supporting? "The more I hear about Mike Huckabee, the more I'm leaning toward Mitt Romney."
But what he hears about Huckabee comes from Romney.
Even in this state famously intolerant of attack ads and negativity, the more Romney bashes Huckabee as a free-spending, soft on crime, soft on illegal immigrants lightweight, the more ground Romney regains against his once-surging rival. Polls show Huckabee's lead has evaporated in the face of Romney's barrage of criticism on TV and on the campaign trail.
"There is this folk wisdom that Iowans don't like negative campaigning," said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political science professor. "I think that's not true. One reason negativity is used is because it's more attention-grabbing, and that's true here, too."
The delicate line that candidates walk in being critical of opponents was on bizarre display during a Huckabee news conference Monday in Des Moines.
Entering a conference room at the Marriott Hotel festooned with poster boards bearing criticism of Mitt Romney, Huckabee declared he would not run a television ad designed to "hit back" at his rival.
And then he proceeded to show the 30-second spot to more than 60 reporters, videocameras running. The ad targets Romney's positions on gun control, executions and health coverage.
"If we say we were going to run an ad but we're not going to run an ad, you'd say, 'Where's the ad?'" Huckabee explained, standing in front of a huge banner that read, "Enough is enough!"
He said the ad, which cost $30,000 to produce, was set to run on TV and radio stations at noon Monday, butan hour before, he decided to pull back. "It's never too late to do the right thing," he said.
Watching who's throwing elbows at whom is a good indication of who's worried about whom.
Romney is bashing Huckabee in Iowa and John McCain in New Hampshire, his biggest threats in both those states. The campaign of Democrat Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been increasingly aggressive in criticizing John Edwards for touting campaign finance reform while benefiting from independent groups airing pro-Edwards TV ads.
Iowa's reputation against negative campaigning solidified in the 2004 Democratic presidential contest. Front-runners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, in what came to be called a murder-suicide pact, waged a nasty campaign on Iowa's airwaves only to have John Kerry and John Edwards rise to the top.
Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager who is now advising Edwards, dismissed the idea that the campaigns are cleaner this year.
"Campaigns got smart after last time, and the kind of attacks have become more insidious and almost camouflaged," Trippi said. "Anonymous phone calls and things like that are better than a TV ad saying, 'Hi, I'm Dick Gephardt, and I'm about to blow the living daylights out of Howard Dean.'"
Keith Ratzlaff, a Democrat in Pella leaning toward Obama, can attest to that.
"Every few days, I get these push polls," the 53-year-old teacher said. "They won't identify themselves, but they'll say thingslike, 'What would be your reaction if you knew John Edwards was a corporate lawyer or led a hedge fund?'"
No naming names
These days, the Democratic candidates rarely even mention each other's names when trying to create contrast.
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken to saying, "You can't just demand change referring to Edwards or hope for change (Obama), you have to work for change (Clinton)."
Likewise, Obama gently dismissed Clinton's emphasis on experience Sunday night before 1,000 people in Des Moines.
"Some people are arguing, 'You know what, I'm best equipped because I know how to work the system,'" he said.
On the Republican side, Huckabee sounds like he's ready to take the Democrats' approach in Iowa after spending the past week openly calling Romney "dishonest" and criticizing him for changing his positions on abortion, gun control and other issues.
"I said what I said. I spoke the truth, but my point is, it's not necessary for me to continue in that same direction," Huckabee said.
Still, while he said he believes Iowans want more out of candidates than attack ads, Huckabee acknowledged that the Romney onslaught is working.
"Yes, it's hurt me," he said. "In many polls now, he's taken the lead back. He ought to be leading. For heaven's sake, he's outspending me 20 to 1."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.
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