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.

nullPlay
null

"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.

Two new national polls have Huckabee running a close second behind Giuliani, R-N.Y., despite Romney's millions. By the (rather similar) numbers: NYT/CBS has it Giuliani 22, Huckabee 21, Romney 16, McCain 7, Thompson 7. CNN/Opinion Research Corporation: Giuliani 24, Huckabee 22, Romney 16, McCain 13, Thompson 10.

"Three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters across the country appear uninspired by their field of presidential candidates, with a vast majority saying they have not made a final decision about whom to support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll," the Times' Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee report. "And in a sign of the fluidity of the race, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who barely registered in early polls several months ago, is now locked in a tight contest nationally."

Romney's seen the numbers, and thus this hopeful tone: "First was the McCain surge, then the Giuliani surge, and then the Fred Thompson surge, and now it's the Mike Huckabee surge," Romney told ABC's Charles Gibson. "And in the past, what's happened is, when the surge occurs, people look more closely at the record of the vision of the person running . . . and inevitably the surge kinda deflates. I think you will see the same thing here. I sure hope so."

Huckabee is continuing to get a thorough press beating. The latest drip -- from the AP's Andrew DeMillo -- raises the Wayne DuMond case anew by reporting that "Mike Huckabee had a hand in twice as many pardons and commutations as his three predecessors combined."

"From paroles issued during his 10 years as governor, to his presiding over a net tax increase to his past comments on Christianity and AIDS, Mr. Huckabee is now on the hot seat," the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan reports.

(And don't miss Tony Perkins firing a warning shot at oppo-researchers: Back down on the faith front, or get ready for "the tsunami of support that he will get from Christians who are tired of the elites who belittle their beliefs and attempt to rob them of every public reflection of their faith.")

This is where Rudy comes in: "The highest electoral hope of the Huckabee candidacy seems to be to provide the necessary confusion to nominate Rudy Giuliani for the presidency," Romney backer Paul Erickson tells Dinan.

Can Rudy last in the lead? "Like the city he once ran, Mr. Giuliani on the campaign trail is also turning out to be more resilient than expected -- drawing on decades of retail politics in New York as he works crowds with ease and vigor," Jonathan Kaufman writes in The Wall Street Journal. "What his supporters and opponents are wondering is whether these moves and his campaign skills will be enough to overcome the hurdles that are coming into clearer and closer view."

Speaking of hurdles -- what happens to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., if Democratic voters choose "change" over "experience"? Camp Clinton is changing the terms of that equation; now, she's the candidate of change, because she has the experience to make it happen. (Follow?)

On the (icy) trail Monday in Iowa, former President Bill Clinton (also sidelined by weather in Iowa on Tuesday) called his wife an "agent of change," per ABC's Christine Byun. "It's one thing to have good intentions; it is another thing entirely to change people's lives," he said.

The New York Times' Patrick Healy noticed that by the former president's second stop, the "change agent" had become an "agent of positive change." Healy: "Because, as we know, there is good change and there is bad change.

Or, one could argue, why use two words when four can do." And the former president said that his wife came to believe " 'quite strongly' that the administration should have taken action -- most likely with some armed forces -- to stop the genocidal violence of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994."

The latest national poll numbers are encouraging for Clinton. The Times/CBS poll has Clinton up 44-27 over Obama, with Edwards registering at 11 and all the other Democrats in the low single digits.

"For all the problems Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be having holding off her rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire, she remains strong nationally, the poll found," Nagourney and Thee write. "Even after what her aides acknowledge have been two of the roughest months of her candidacy, she is viewed by Democrats as a far more electable presidential nominee than either Senator Barack Obama or John Edwards."

But all is not happy at Camp Clinton. This is the first time in the recorded history of this campaign that a tantalizing tidbit about internal campaign turmoil -- the suggestion from Bloomberg's Al Hunt that "it's a good bet that Clinton, encouraged by her husband, is weighing a shakeup" -- provided wide gossip fodder.

The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos sees Clinton needing to give up some pride -- "something Clinton is probably reluctant to do." "Now she finds herself in a duel for the Democratic nomination with the younger, more dynamic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who exudes a Bill Clinton-like sensitivity to average people," Canellos writes.

"This weekend, when Chelsea Clinton finally joined her mother on the stump, she seemed to be wondering the same thing as the rest of the country: Are we really up for another go-round? Hillary Clinton has to make sure the answer is yes, and it probably requires a more direct, humble appeal to voters. She needs to show just how badly she wants to be president, how eager she is to serve."

Obama, who kept the Oprah glitz going with a Hollywood fundraiser on Monday, is trying to turn the weekend's massive rallies into something far more useful: campaign volunteers.

"The Obama campaign is taking Winfrey's support to another level by trying to reach everyone who came to see her within 48 hours and get them on board," the AP's Nedra Pickler reports. "As ticket stubs were collected at the Iowa events Saturday, they were sorted by geographical region. As the rallies ended, volunteer messengers braved icy roads to begin delivering stubs to the 35 offices across the state. Other stubs were scanned into image files and sent via computer."

Obama is picking up the endorsement of Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., who had previously indicated that she'd remain neutral in the primary. That gives Obama both of New Hampshire's House members.

ABC's Jake Tapper has the details of a leaflet circulating in Iowa that picks apart the labor record of former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. "The shocker? It's from Mr. Positive, Sen. Barack Obama," Tapper writes.

"The cheapest shot . . . that Edwards somehow has something to do with Whirlpool when the company was closing down Maytag plants in Iowa, Illinois, and Arkansas. Why is that a cheap shot? Because the link is that Edwards worked for the controversial Fortress Hedge Fund while it owned stock in Whirlpool as it was shutting down those plants. But some argue a far more direct link exists between Obama and those plants shutting down."

Tapper also writes up an anti-Obama mailing prepared by the Clinton campaign, attacking his record on health care. "What many will clearly find very interesting is the fact that almost all the attacks on Obama from the Clinton lit are from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman," Tapper writes.

The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny has details of an oppo fishing expedition engaged in by a Clinton deputy campaign manager.

And (we assume) they drop a good one on Obama in Politico on Tuesday: "When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was seeking state office a dozen years ago, he took unabashedly liberal positions: flatly opposed to capital punishment, in support of a federal single-payer health plan, against any restrictions on abortion, and in support of state laws to ban the manufacture, sale and even possession of handguns," Mike Allen and Ben Smith report.

What if, as on the Republican side, the candidate who isn't part of the fight-of-the-moment ends up benefiting from the turmoil? Edwards is staying seated ringside.

"Earlier in the campaign, Edwards jabbed Democratic rival Hillary Clinton at every turn. But he's toned down the rhetoric in recent weeks, and he said he will keep it that way from now on," per the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys. Edwards: "My intention is between now and the caucuses to focus on why I want to be president, and the positive parts of that."

Edwards gets The Washington Post takeout treatment on Tuesday, and he's defiant when asked about the "rich lawyer label." "What I want to say to people is 'Well, if I hadn't been successful, would that make me better qualified to be president?' " Edwards tells Sue Anne Pressley Montes.

And the Post's Dana Milbank is rough on him: "We know that Edwards means what he says. We know this because he says everything loudly, shouting from beginning to end as he denounces the "rigged" system in Washington," Milbank writes.

"For further evidence of sincerity, he swaps his trademark smile for a pained squint when he speaks about the 'disappointment' of the parents who have no money for their children's college, and he shakes his fist when he demands removal of the 'wall.' "

Also in the news:

Former governor Jane Swift, R-Mass., gets a measure of revenge on Romney in Tuesday's New Hampshire Union Leader. "Mitt Romney is campaigning on his record as governor; yet he has become unrecognizable to the citizens who voted him into office," writes Swift, whom Romney elbowed out of the 2002 governor's race.

She continues: "In a Romney-Clinton match-up, Democrats need only take a page from the George W. Bush playbook: Undermine the voters' sense that Romney can be trusted by highlighting the number of times he's conveniently changed his mind. And don't forget: He will have to do some more flipping if he becomes the party's nominee. Romney would have to tack back toward the middle -- where most American voters comfortably sit -- in order to win. That might just be a flip-flop-flap."

More Huckabee scrutiny: He's flip-flopped on the Cuban embargo.

"As governor of Arkansas five years ago, Mike Huckabee joined a bipartisan chorus of politicians who concluded that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was bad for businesses," the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten reports. "Now that he's a top-tier candidate for president, Huckabee has decided he favors the embargo -- so much so that he vowed Monday to outdo even President Bush in strangling the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro and punishing those who do business there."

Ryan White's mother wants a few words with Huckabee, per the AP's Liz Sidoti.

Politico's Jeanne Cummings identifies one potential obstacle to Huckabee's bid: the IRS. (And no, it's not that tax officials are mad that a national sales tax could put them out of business.) Cummings: "Huckabee's Iowa surge is driven largely by an eleventh-hour rally of Christian activists behind the Republican's candidacy, and that's certain to draw attention from tax sleuths and others."

Beliefnet.com's Dan Gilgoff sat down with Tony Perkins a week before he defended Huckabee, and found him just a bit skeptical about his candidacy.

"Family Research Council president Tony Perkins raised doubts about Huckabee's viability and noted that Huckabee is the only Republican presidential candidate he has not met with personally since the race got underway," Gilgoff writes. Perkins: "He may be trying to avoid the leadership [of the Christian Right] and it may be because of other issues," Perkins said, citing Huckabee's stances on illegal immigration and taxes, which have been criticized by some conservative groups.

Former senator Fred Thompson's campaign emerges for long enough to tell us that he won't be back in New Hampshire until 2008. (What's the rush?) "Obviously, Iowa comes first," spokeswoman Karen Hanretty tells the New Hampshire Union Leader's John DiStaso. (It doesn't come first for everybody else?)

Delicious quote from Thompson's Hillsborough County campaign chairman, David Alukonis: "I don't know what his campaign strategy is."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., both have new ads up touting their experience. Says Biden: "When this campaign is over, political slogans like 'experience' and 'change' will mean absolutely nothing," Biden says in his new spot. "You don't have to guess what I'll do as president -- just look at what I've done."

Dodd takes a more humorous approach to playing the experience card. "As you might have guessed," he says in the 30-second spot, "I'm not a former first lady. Or a celebrity. But I am the only Democrat running who's a veteran and I served in the Peace Corps."

The guns-plus-butter funding deal has collapsed, with House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., accusing "Republicans of bargaining in bad faith," Jonathan Weisman reports in The Washington Post.

"Instead, Obey said he will push a huge spending bill that would hew to the president's spending limit by stripping it of all lawmakers' pet projects, as well as most of the Bush administration's top priorities," Weisman writes.

Obey (remembering his old friend Dick Cheney): "I was willing to listen to the argument that we ought to at least add more for Afghanistan, but when the White House refuses to compromise, when the White House continues to stick it in our eye, I say to hell with it."

An innovative partnership with some big ideas in mind is unveiled Tuesday morning at 10 am ET at the National Press Club. America Forward -- founded by David Gergen, New Profit Inc.'s Vanessa Kirsch, Timberland Co.'s Jeff Swartz, and Bain Capital's Mark Nunnelly -- launches with a call for a "fresh vision of government," and an eye on domestic policy.

AP's Ron Fournier has a preview: "The coalition goes public Tuesday, but American Forward leaders have quietly lobbied presidential campaigns for weeks. 'Oh, yes, I've heard of them,' Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said between campaign stops Monday. 'There is enormous hunger for community engagement, for civic engagement, specifically among young people but they don't always have an outlet for it.' "

We hand out awards for the best and the worst of the year's political ads on today's World News Webcast, available live at 3 pm ET at ABCNews.com and via iTunes anytime after that. Find out who's got the best hair dig in a spot, who made the lamest use of a lame celebrity, who wins "worst actor" honors, and who gets the Lyndon Johnson Memorial Award for Subtlety.

Money magazine's looks at the potential "millionaires in chief." Obama's the poor one, with a net worth of only $1.3 million.

Two special House elections are being held on Tuesday.

"After a brief, low-budget campaign, voters in the state's 1st Congressional District will choose between Democrat Phil Forgit, Republican Rob Wittman and independent Lucky Narain to fill the House seat left vacant when four-term Rep. Jo Ann Davis died in October after a long battle with breast cancer," Dale Eisman writes in The Virginian-Pilot.

But the one to watch is in Ohio: "Republicans are facing a surprisingly fierce fight in a Tuesday special election to hold on to a conservative northwestern Ohio seat that has been under the party's control for the past 70 years," Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports. "National attention will be on the contest in Ohio between Republican Bob Latta and Democrat Robin Weirauch to fill the seat of the late Republican Rep. Paul Gillmor -- a race that wasn't expected to be close."

The kicker:

"Every two years, the Democrats kind of haul me out of the barn like an old horse to see if I can make it around the track one more time." -- Bill Clinton, on the trail for his wife.

"These people are crazy. . . Crazy in a good way." -- Rand Paul, on the unlikely army of supporters supporting the candidacy of his father, Ron.

Bookmark The Note at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TheNote/story?id=3105288&page=1