THE NOTE: Huck's Heat

Welcome to the big leagues, Mike Huckabee.

You got a taste of your first dirty trick (nasty little fliers slipped under hotel room doors in Des Moines -- so old school).

You've got your very own Willie Horton (and your own slippery explanations to greet it).

You're being forced to duck pesky questions about your views on creationism and Mormonism (c'mon, you MUST have a view on whether it's a religion or a cult, governor).

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You're suddenly No. 2 in a national poll (and now that you're in the top tier, we'll see how good the Lord is at crowd control and media wrangling).

And now you get something of a reality check out of New Hampshire: It's Romney 37, McCain 20, Giuliani 16, and only 9 percent support for Huckabee, compared to 8 percent for Ron Paul and 4 percent for (sixth-place) Fred Thompson.

(Before you dismiss this as part of the secular New England spirit, remember that Huckabee has been spending a lot more in New Hampshire than Iowa of late.)

"The forces pulling Mike Huckabee to the fore in Iowa are fizzling 1,300 miles to the east, where, in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is strong on issues and personal attributes – and unthreatened by the religion issue he'll try to lay to rest in a speech tomorrow," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes in summing up the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll of New Hampshire Republicans.

Write Jon Cohen and Dan Balz of The Washington Post: "Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney holds a wide lead over his Republican rivals in New Hampshire, where he is seen as the strongest leader and most electable presidential candidate in the field, but the GOP race there remains unsettled a month before the nation's first primary."

You can excuse Huckabee for some rookie mistakes -- he's new to this whole top-tier thing. But sometimes veterans act like they're new to the game -- and the consequences can be devastating.

You cannot make this stuff up: Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass. -- who is attacking Huckabee and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Huckabee for not being tough enough on the border issue -- still had illegal immigrants working on his lawn until Tuesday, when The Boston Globe brought that inconvenient fact to his attention.

The morning after Giuliani attacked Romney's "sanctuary mansion" at last week's debate in Florida, "at least two illegal immigrants stepped out of a hulking maroon pickup truck in the driveway of Romney's Belmont house, then proceeded to spend several hours raking leaves, clearing debris from Romney's tennis court, and loading the refuse onto the truck," per the Globe's Maria Cramer, Maria Sacchetti, and Connie Paige.

(And the same crew was working at the nearby home of eldest son Taggart, too.)

Romney's reaction: "Did you hear him? We'll give you a statement." That statement indicated that Romney fired the company late Tuesday, though the Globe has the owner of the landscaping company disputing Romney's account that he insisted that he hire legal workers.

In any event, the political damage was done. Sen. John McCain: "I'm more than pleased with the fact that I live in a condominium."

This is the last thing Romney needs on a week where he's playing defense -- against Huckabee, against Giuliani, and against the great broad question of his Mormonism that he may or may not address Thursday morning in College Station, Texas.

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