Look for the Republican front-runner in Iowa the night before the caucuses, and you'll find him in Burbank, Calif. With less than 24 hours to go until the caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee chose -- oddly -- to leave Iowa, fly to California, and appear on "The Tonight Show."
Political experts puzzled over Huckabee's decision at a critical moment on the ground in Iowa. But aboard his bus with Chuck Norris -- the action star who backs him -- at his side, the candidate said it makes perfect sense.
"If I can be on 'The Tonight Show,'" Huckabee said, "I'll be speaking to more people in Iowa in that brief period of time that I can get to in the time that I'm going to be out in California and back."
Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, Huckabee's main rival in Iowa, mocked the appearance as a stunt. "I guess he's more focused on the caucus in L.A. than the caucus in Iowa," he said.
Down to the Wire
It's all part of the bitter, down-to-the-wire battle between Huckabee and Romney for victory in the caucuses tomorrow night. Down the home stretch, Huckabee has stumbled, after coming out of nowhere to rocket to the top of the GOP pack late last year.
Today, Huckabee had another bad moment. He did not seem to know he would have to cross the striking TV writer's picket line to appear on Jay Leno's show.
"But my understanding is there's a sort of dispensation given to the late-night shows, is that right?" he said to reporters.
Unfortunately there is not, and Huckabee choosing "The Tonight Show" over staying in Iowa may be a bad move for reasons other than crossing the picket line. Huckabee's sizable lead in Iowa has evaporated. One reason is that Mitt Romney put his multi-million dollar campaign machine into high gear and went negative -- a tactic that seems to be working.
In a recent ad, he criticized Huckabee's record on immigration and continued to hammer Huckabee on his record as Arkansas governor, and on his criticism of President Bush's foreign policy. Huckabee seems to have been lashing out at Romney personally but denies that it is an unfair attack.
"I don't know that we called him a liar," Huckabee said. "But the word 'dishonest' was intentionally deployed because it is dishonest if you say something that you know isn't true and you blatantly misrepresent attacks."
Huckabee Losing Ground
The name-calling did not work for Huckabee, whose lead kept eroding, and who on Monday seemed to dig himself into a deeper hole. He called a press conference where he was planning to unveil his own harshly negative ad campaign. He then said he had a change of heart just minutes before and ordered his staff to pull the ads from TV, but then continued to play it for reporters anyway. That was a move that many are saying guaranteed him free airtime for the negative ad. Reporters laughed out loud at what many saw as a naked ploy, but Huckabee insists he does not mind.
"I think people respect the fact that I knew I was going to get laughed at, jeered by the press," said Huckabee. "I knew that a lot of people would say, 'You're an idiot, hit him back, hit him back harder.' You know what I think people look for in a President, I think somebody who's got the guts to say this is what I think is right and I'm doing it."
Norris got so angry about the controversy that he came back to Iowa for Huckabee, and leapt to his defense.
"Why don't you criticize Romney for his negative ads," Norris said. "I didn't hear any people saying 'This is wrong.' Romney should not be writing all this trash and negative ads.' I didn't hear one criticism from you guys for his negative ads."
Romney Not Buying It
Romney is clearly enjoying all this, as he said this morning in Des Moines, joined by his wife, Ann.
"Well I think that's too cute by half," Romney said of Huckabee's self-described change of heart with the negative ad. "I don't think you fool the reporters and I don't think you fool the people of Iowa. It's a little like saying 'I'm not going to call my opponents any names, but if I were to call him names, here's what they are.' I just don't think that works."
And while many polls still show him behind, Romney has steadily gained back the ground he lost, not making any apologies for his tactics. He doesn't see his ads as attacking Huckabee, but rather believes they point out important differences each candidate takes on the issues.
"We ran ads that described my position on the issues compared to Gov. Huckabee's," Romney said. "Those kind of differences are distinct. It's appropriate for people to consider those things."
But the battle with Huckabee has cost Romney -- he's spent more money on ads here than all of his opponents combined -- and he's pouring in millions of dollars of his own vast fortune. However, he scoffs at critics who say he is trying to buy the presidency.
"Let me tell you I've raised more money than anyone else," Romney said of his Republican contenders. His wife, Ann Romney added that she thought the accusation of buying the election is "totally unfair -- I believe that's totally unfair."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., may be the real beneficiary of the mudfight between Huckabee and Romney. He was back in Iowa today, riding a surge in the polls that could land him in third place and give him more momentum into New Hampshire.
For Huckabee, however, who rose so far so fast, there is more at stake. But he now says he never expected victory here.
"Our expectations were never that it was realistic that we would win in Iowa," Huckabee said. "I mean we're outspent 20 to 1! How many people ever get elected to anything when they're outspent 20 to 1? Mitt Romney's been running television commercials, probably 9,000 commercials, for six or eight months. He's got paid staff in every county. We're just basically a bunch of farmers with muskets going against the Red Coats with long rifles."