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As his lead slips, Romney targets McCain and Huckabee

Polls released Sunday show Romney in dead heats in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Analysts and local GOP officials in Iowa say Romney's runaway lead here as late as the fall was a product of his deep and early investments of time and money. He was the first major presidential candidate of either party to air ads in Iowa, back in February, and Huckabee said recently that Romney has outspent him here by a ratio of 20 to 1. But many evangelical Christians had reservations both about Romney's Mormon faith and his newly adopted positions on social issues. After former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson failed to catch fire, the activists say, Republicans moved toward Huckabee, who showed with his second-place finish in the Ames straw poll in August and his rising poll numbers that he had momentum.

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"We saw a very traditional bandwagon effect once Huckabee broke through some threshold of viability," says David Redlawsk, a pollster at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Despite Huckabee's natural appeal as a minister, not all evangelical Iowans interviewed last week could be counted in his camp. Joel Dunlap of Ankeny, Iowa, a ministry student at a local Christian college, says he soured on Huckabee after the former Arkansas governor flubbed answers on foreign policy. Mr. Dunlap singled out Huckabee's remark, after the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, about martial law "continuing." In fact, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had lifted martial law two weeks earlier.

"I agree with my evangelical friends on social issues," Dunlap says, "but Huckabee's lack of knowledge on foreign policy kind of scares me."

Republican activists have mixed feelings about the new ads. "I know [the campaign] is calling his ads 'contrast' or 'comparison' ads, but a lot of people see them as attack ads, and I don't think that's going over very well," says Robin Malmberg, chairwoman of the Henry County Republican Party, in southeast Iowa. "Republicans don't need to be attacking Republicans."

But it is too late for that. McCain struck back with a commercial in New Hampshire accusing Romney of lacking "conviction" and quoting a local newspaper editorial calling him a "phony." Huckabee, in a new spot that is essentially an attack on attack ads, tells Iowa voters "Enough is enough." Huckabee had planned to release a new ad Monday attacking Romney by name.

But at a bizarre noontime news conference in Des Moines in which he had planned to unveil the spot, Huckabee said he'd decided at the very last-minute to keep the high ground and not run it.

Then, in front of more than 100 reporters and news cameras, he projected the ad onto a large screen anyway, in order, he said, to prove to the media that he had actually produced it.

"I know there's going to be cynicism," he said. There was. Reporters immediately questioned whether the move was a stunt to attack Romney while seeming not to.

"It's never too late to do the right thing," Huckabee insisted.

The visceral war of words on the airwaves stands in contrast to the Reaganesque rhetoric Romney has been using on a four-day, 23-stop bus tour across Iowa. "I don't think anybody votes for yesterday," Romney, in khakis and shirtsleeves, said in an upbeat campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, Saturday. "I think we vote for tomorrow."

Despite his dip in the polls, few people here are writing Romney off. Party activists say the very factors responsible for his head start in Iowa – a large, disciplined and well-financed campaign organization – could yield the high turnout of which caucus victories are made.