Early primaries force candidates to shift tone (mostly)

With the first caucus right after the holiday, all but Romney are playing nice.

In Campaign '08, a week that started out naughty is winding up nice – mostly.

The earlier-than-ever Iowa caucuses take place in less than two weeks, and for the first time, Christmas is part of the homestretch. With one exception, candidates are avoiding negative messages lest they intrude on voters' holiday cheer. Instead, they're filling the airwaves and the Web with season's greetings – some lighthearted, some earnest, and most featuring Christmas trees.

The exception is former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts, who appears to be in "whatever it takes" mode to halt the momentum of former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas. Mr. Huckabee has taken a solid lead among likely Iowa caucusgoers, thwarting Mr. Romney's plan to build potentially unstoppable momentum by winning the first two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire.

By remaining aggressive against Huckabee, Romney is going after him for his 1,033 clemencies as Arkansas governor and for criticizing President Bush's foreign policy. Romney's tactic is risky in Iowa, where voters have a reputed aversion to negativity. In 2004, two of the top Democratic contenders, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, duked it out late in the game and sank on caucus night. Other factors played into their demise, but analysts say the negativity contributed. The current campaigns have taken note.

"The candidates know how Iowans feel about negative," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "An additional factor is that Christmas is coming up, and no one wants to go from 'Silent Night' to 'so and so is a child molester or a cocaine user.' "

No one is accusing any of the candidates of child molestation, but last week, the cocaine issue was put in play. Billy Shaheen, then co-chair of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign, raised drug use in connection with the New York senator's main rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. In his 1995 memoirs, Mr. Obama discussed using drugs as a teenager, including doing "a little blow," slang for cocaine. Mr. Shaheen had raised the drug issue as a potential liability for Obama if he were to win the nomination, including speculation over whether he ever gave or sold drugs to anyone. The Obama campaign reacted angrily, and Shaheen resigned from the campaign. But the issue stayed in the news for days.

Another Clinton surrogate, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, stirred up a tempest when he commented on the Muslim heritage of Obama's forebears – allegedly as a positive. But the discussion became a peg for more discourse about Obama and Islam, potentially furthering the impression among some voters that Obama himself is Muslim, which he is not. Mr. Kerrey apologized for the comment, but the damage was done.

On the Republican side, the Huckabee-Romney smack down took a nasty turn when Huckabee wondered out loud in a New York Times Magazine interview if Mormons believe that "Jesus and the devil are brothers." Romney's Mormon faith has been an issue for his candidacy, and Huckabee's background as an evangelical Baptist pastor has put religion front and center in their duel. Huckabee later apologized, but again, the issue was in play.

"A cynic would say Huckabee planned it all along to plant the seed in the minds of Iowans, then limit the damage to himself by apologizing to Romney," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Mr. Pitney suggests that may be even more true for the Clinton surrogates' comments about Obama: "Few things are accidental in a Clinton campaign," he says. "So in these cases, the cynical explanation is probably the accurate one. Bob Kerrey is 'praising' Obama by saying, 'Boy, isn't it a good thing that he has connections to the Muslim world!' "

By midweek this week, those stories had mostly played out – but not quite – as the campaigns unveiled their Christmas videos. Huckabee's contained a prominent "floating cross" behind him, as he delivered his holiday message. In fact, the cross was part of a bookshelf behind the candidate that appeared to float by as the camera panned. Intentionally or not, the image sent a reminder to Iowa voters that Huckabee is running as a "Christian leader," as another Huckabee ad noted. Evangelical voters play a prominent role in Iowa's Republican caucuses; their convergence around Huckabee in recent weeks has changed the shape of that crucial first contest.

In Obama's Christmas video, the senator and his wife thank voters for their friendship, then turn the spotlight to their daughters. "Merry Christmas!" announces 9-year-old Malia – perhaps an intentional reminder that the family is, in fact, Christian. "Happy holidays!" announces the younger daughter, Sasha.

Most of the campaign Christmas videos cover their bases with both "Merry Christmas" and "Happy holidays," though Clinton's goes for just "Happy holidays" as she organizes gifts labeled with campaign promises ("Bring Troops Home," "Universal Health Care," etc.)

Rudolph Giuliani lampooned his brash New York style in his Christmas video. Wearing a bright red sweater vest and sitting in front of a Christmas tree, the former mayor of New York admits he's having a little trouble getting his holiday shopping done, what with the early primaries.

So he's giving everyone the same gift, the promise of "a safe America, lower taxes, secure borders …. and probably a fruitcake or something…."

"A fruitcake?" an off-camera voice interrupts.

"What?" charges back an indignant Giuliani. "It'll be a really nice fruitcake, with a big red bow on it…."

"Merry Christmas, happy holidays!" he concludes, covering his bases.

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