Can 'Mr. Nice Guy' Get Nasty?

Can Mr. Nice Guy go on the offensive and still be considered, well, nice?

That's the question facing the surging Mike Huckabee, now the major target of rival Mitt Romney and some in the Washington Republican establishment.

Huckabee, who's beating Romney by 8 points in Iowa, insists he isn't on the attack. But the former pastor is hardly turning the other cheek.

"There are attacks that are directed at me and I'm defending myself against them but I have not run television ads attacking someone. I don't have mail pieces attacking anyone," he said at a campaign event in Dike, Iowa, on Thursday.

"You've never heard me talking about Rudy Giuliani or John McCain except respectfully, or Fred Thompson or even Tom Tancredo," he said outside a campaign stop in West Des Moines on Wednesday.

Notice anyone missing? In his stump speeches, Huckabee almost never drops the R-word, preferring the genteel "my opponent."

But as any middle school mean girl knows, there are many ways to be nasty without naming names. Huckabee seems to have mastered one of the most effective tactics. He certainly goes on the attack; it's just that he's just so gosh-darn nice about it.

On Thursday, Huckabee charged Romney with turning down sympathetic pardon applications — like that of an Iraq veteran who wanted to become a police officer — out of concern for his own political future.

The hit was a response to a Romney ad, currently running in Iowa, slamming Huckabee for granting more than 1,000 clemencies while serving as a governor.

"When you make decisions and you judge cases based on how it's going to affect your own political future rather then how it's going to affect a decorated solider to become a police officer, it does say a lot about judgment," Huckabee said in Ames, Iowa.

Even Hillary Rodham Clinton gets a back-handed compliment.

"Speaking of the Clintons, no one else has ever run against their well-oiled machine but me," Huckabee said. "What a privilege it was, against unbelievable odds, to win in that environment."

The non-hit hit, says the campaign, is a critical piece of Huckabee's strategy.

"We think the key to doing well in Iowa is talking about what you're for rather than what you are against," says campaign manger Chip Saltsman. "I think most people in this country are tired of the politics of negative destruction."

But Iowa's niceness obsession does not extend to New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina.

"Huckabee will have to demonstrate toughness before too long," says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "We're not electing a national preacher or a presidential Dr. Phil, after all."

Huckabee is not only playing nice defense against his rivals. Although he's surging in the polls, Huckabee is getting slammed by some in the Republican establishment.

Columnist George Will called him "a comprehensive apostasy against core Republican beliefs." National Review's Rich Lowry wrote that "like [Howard] Dean, his nomination would represent an act of suicide by his party."

And former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who is remaining neutral in the race, called comments Huckabee made criticizing Bush's foreign affairs policy "unwarranted and unwise."

Huckabee derides his inside-the-Beltway critics as "the Wall Street/Washington axis of power."

"Some of it has been somewhat surprising," he said to reporters on Thursday, singling out both the National Review and the Weekly Standard.

"It's almost geographical more than philosophical ... they live within that Beltway mindset where there really is an insular view of the world."

Launching a real Huckabeating would be hard, even with supporter Chuck Norris as backup.

Huckabee has just 42 staffers across the country, a reflection of hi meager bankbook. Romney has almost half as many, with 17 paid staffers in Iowa alone.

The media attention — even when negative — keeps Huckabee in the spotlight.

But some strong supporters believe he should get a bit more aggressive.

"He has a definite desire to run a clean campaign, but he's no fool, you can't just take it and not fight back," says Brad Sherman, an Iowa voter who signed on with Huckabee in early 2006.