As his lead slips, Romney targets McCain and Huckabee
Polls released Sunday show Romney in dead heats in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
DES MOINES, Iowa
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He visited more often and outspent his rivals, and, by October, the investment seemed to have paid off: The former Massachusetts governor had run up a 23-point lead over his nearest opponent in the polls and looked all but unbeatable.
Then the ground gave way. With Mike Huckabee pulling even in the latest polls here and Sen. John McCain narrowing a once-commanding lead in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney now finds himself in a harrowing two-front war for survival.
Independent polls released Sunday show Romney in a statistical deadlock with Mr. Huckabee in Iowa and in a tie with Senator McCain in New Hampshire. A month ago, Romney was leading McCain in New Hampshire by 19 points.
Romney has responded with a good cop, bad cop strategy, speaking in sunny terms about America's future during a bus tour across Iowa this past week while simultaneously launching a blitz of attack ads against Huckabee and McCain.
The onslaught of ads and campaign statements target not just his rivals, but even one of the two New Hampshire newspapers that published an "anti-endorsement" of him earlier this month. He branded the Concord Monitor, the main paper in New Hampshire's capital, the "liberal press."
Huckabee and McCain have called the attacks "desperate," and Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, wrote that the latest ads make Romney's campaign "the most negative … of any presidential candidate in either party." But Romney spokesman Kevin Madden says the spots are a legitimate way to highlight policy differences among candidates. "Voters want that type of information about candidates before choosing who they will support," he wrote in an e-mail.
Victories in Iowa and New Hampshire are crucial for Romney, who is banking on a so-called "kindling strategy" of wins in the early contests to boost him out of third or fourth place in the national polls.
The ads risk alienating some voters, but analysts say they are a reasonable step given Romney's slide ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses Thursday.
Still, the short break between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests – just five days – puts Romney in the awkward position of speaking in almost the same breath to two very different electorates: the socially conservative evangelical Christians who make up some 40 percent of Iowa caucusgoers, and the independent-minded New Hampshire voters who knew – and liked – him as the socially moderate governor from a neighboring state.
"The problem for Romney is that the kind of contrast he needs to draw with Huckabee is different from the kind of contrast he needs to draw with McCain," says Linda Fowler, a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "If he tries to do both, then he just plays into the problem of authenticity people have with him."
His new ads go after McCain's record on illegal immigration and taxes, and accuse Huckabee of being "soft on government spending" and easy on crime as Arkansas governor. But they avoid social issues such as abortion on which Romney has shifted positions over the years.