THE NOTE: Romney Picks Fight with Huckabee

Somewhere, Rudy Giuliani is smiling.

No, it's not that Tim Russert has asked him another question about his business interests. And it's not that crippling winter storms are disrupting his rivals' travel plans in Iowa (the state Giuliani would still rather wasn't on the early-voting map). It's not even that the Yankees are alive in the Johan Santana sweepstakes.

It's that Mitt Romney has become the first presidential candidate to cross the negative-ad threshold -- and he did it not by taking on Giuliani, the national frontrunner, but by blasting Mike Huckabee.

Forget the kindling strategy, the fund-raising records, the teams of seasoned advisers and activists, the straw poll victory, even The Speech. It comes down to this for Romney, R-Mass.: He cannot lose Iowa to Huckabee.

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"Romney is suddenly running scared as Huckabee has overtaken him in several polls of Iowa caucus-goers," Michael Shear writes in The Washington Post. "The decision to go negative on television is fraught with peril. . . . But Romney may have no choice."

Surely Romney advisers figured the battle by now would be between him and Giuliani, or maybe him and Fred Thompson, or even John McCain. But by engaging Huckabee, R-Ark., directly on immigration, Romney is indicating that he will live or die by the early-state strategy he's pursued for the better part of a year.

"The elevated rhetoric -- including the Romney campaign's mass e-mailing Monday of an anti-Huckabee Web column -- reflects a growing sense of urgency within its headquarters, where the game plan all year has been predicated on bowling over rivals with victories in lead-voting Iowa and New Hampshire," the AP's Glen Johnson and Liz Sidoti report.

Romney's new ad goes out of its way to praise Huckabee, which "seems to suggest the Romney campaign is wary of a frontal assault in Iowa," ABC's John Berman reports. The ad is accurate. But the takeaway sentences -- that Huckabee "supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants," and "even supported taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens," aren't playing nice.

Leaving aside the ironies of a man derided as "Multiple-Choice Mitt" calling an ad "Choice: The Record" (and don't think his rivals will), Romney is testing another key assumption: That immigration is the issue that will trump all others with GOP primary voters.

The ad comes at a moment where Huckabee's record as governor is coming in for an unattractive close-up. (Ten months' worth of oppo-research being dropped on his head in two weeks - - welcome, governor, to the top tier.)

And those fund-raising totals begin to matter now that Huckabee is badly outgunned in getting his new message - - an ad calling for a border fence and "no amnesty" - - into Iowa circulation.

But Huckabee won't be so easy to beat back (despite the ice storm's disruption of his Iowa schedule).

People like him and seem to relate to him in a way they don't with Romney. He's peaking at the right moment. And he has exploded onto the national scene in a way that Romney simply hasn't. "Taking down Huckabee the Candidate means taking down Huckabee the Man, and that requires the kind of nuclear blast no one is yet inclined to launch," writes Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News.

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