Candidates tread lightly around Christmas holiday

Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leaves a clothing store after buying a Christmas present for his wife Ann, during a campaign stop in Lancaster, N.H., Thursday Dec. 22, 2011.

Many of the Republican presidential candidates are in the middle of feverish last-minute pushes to improve their chances in the January 3 Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation voting event with the potential to significantly boost a candidacy - or end it.

Yet smack in the middle of that push comes a significant day in the lives of many Americans: The Christmas holiday, a time when many Americans are far more interested in family than politics. The fact that Christmas comes less than 10 days before the caucuses has forced campaigns to do careful calculations about how to maximize their electoral chances without being seen as disrespecting the holiday - a particular concern for candidates courting Iowa's evangelical voters.

One solution: A Christmas commercial. Both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have released Christmas-themed spots designed to show they're embracing the holiday. Gingrich, joined by wife Callista, released a spot this week in which he says Christmas lights "remind us of the fire of freedom that burns bright in the America we love." (Watch at left.) The spot will debut in Iowa Friday, just in time for Christmas weekend.

Gingrich's ad harkens back to a Mike Huckabee ad from the 2008 presidential cycle, when the caucuses also came soon after Christmas. The spot featured Huckabee, in a red sweater, talking directly to the camera; a shelf in the background creates the image of a cross.

"Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics? Well, I don't blame you," Huckabee said in the spot. "At this time of year sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and friends." Huckabee would go on to win the caucuses a few days later, largely thanks to the support of evangelical voters.

For Gingrich, who has been hammered by a barrage of negative ads in Iowa that polls suggest have done him significant damage, the holidays present an additional reason for celebration. That's because Restore our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC that has been running ads in Iowa attacking Gingrich's "baggage," plans to take those ads down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (A spokesperson for the group said she couldn't say what would happen on the 26th, but it's likely that the ads will resume.)

Paul's Christmas spot features his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who sings his father's praises while standing in front of a Christmas tree. (Watch at left.) It's less Christmas focused than the Gingrich spot - Rand Paul doesn't actually mention the holiday until the end - but the Christmas framing softens the direct appeal. The Paul campaign says the spot will run in Iowa and New Hampshire on December 24 and 25 - Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Paul's campaign did not respond to a question about whether it would be taking down its anti-Gingrich ads for the holiday.

No other candidate has yet unveiled a Christmas-themed ad. Asked if they would be doing so, both the Romney and Rick Perry campaigns pointed to positive spots featuring the candidates' wives, which they intend to run over the holiday weekend. (It's worth noting that Perry took heatfor an ad earlier this month in which he said "there's something wrong" when gays can serve openly in the military but kids "can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.") 

Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leaves a clothing store after buying a Christmas present for his wife Ann, during a campaign stop in Lancaster, N.H., Thursday Dec. 22, 2011.

Christmas also means a short break for candidates who have been campaigning virtually nonstop since the summer. "Governor Perry's 44-city Iowa bus tour will take a hiatus between Friday, December 22th and Tuesday, December 27th," said Perry spokesperson Ray Sullivan.

That's par for the course.

"Dr. Paul and the staff will take 12/24 and 12/25 off to be with their families, use 12/26 as a travel day to get back to their positions and dig in for the final push in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton.

Rep. Michele Bachmann also plans to be off on Saturday and Sunday, travel on Monday and be back on the trail Tuesday, according to Bachmann spokesperson Alice Stewart. Spokespersons for Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman also said their candidates will be down for the weekend and back on the trail early next week.

Romney is taking the weekend off to spend time with his family at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts - among those present will be son Tagg and Romney's grandchildren - where, he told CBS News, they will engage in an annual tradition of reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Gingrich will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning watching his wife Callista sing in the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The couple plans to have a quiet afternoon and Christmas dinner afterward before traveling to Wisconsin in December 26th to spend time with Callista's family before returning to the campaign trail in Dubuque, Iowa on the 27th.

Perry, meanwhile, told reporters Thursday that he takes out a video camera and films his adult children in bed on Christmas morning, "and they're like c'mon dad, we're grown, will you cut it out?"

"That is our typical Christmas and you know it's kind of like, 'dad, you are so lame,'" he said. "But I think they would be disappointed if I didn't do it."

With reporting by Sarah Huisenga, Sarah Boxer and Rebecca Kaplan.

Special report: Election 2012