Huckabee, Romney, Rivals Clash In Iowa

Republican Candidates: Huckabee, Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Thompson
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

After Rudy Giuliani finished a short speech at his local campaign headquarters in Clive, Iowa, over the weekend, Ann Vanhes got a chance to speak to the man she wants to be the next president.

"We thank you so much for 9/11," she said.

It was an awkward moment for Giuliani, and not just because of the unfortunate phrasing. While Vanhes is an ardent supporter of the former New York City mayor, she's in the minority in her home state: Giuliani trails Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in Iowa by more than 20 points in some polls. Giuliani's two stops in the state on Saturday were rushed affairs, with reporters shouting questions about why, with the Jan. 3rd caucuses fast approaching, he wasn't spending more time here.

"We've tried to run a proportionate campaign because we've got 29 primaries and caucuses that are gonna take place between the 3rd of January and the 5th of February," Giuliani said in Indianola. "So our whole theory was we're going to spend enough time in each one of the places. But we can't spend all our time in just one place."

The Iowa caucuses are an expectations game, and Giuliani has kept his low here, long stressing that he is focused on capitalizing on winning delegates in the larger states instead of creating momentum in the early voting ones. He seems to be hoping his brief foray in the state on Saturday might help propel him to a finish in the top three, but he will not be campaigning here again.

Romney and Huckabee, meanwhile, are crisscrossing the state in an effort to finish first in the caucuses - and perhaps claim the mantle of frontrunner in a Republican field that is yet to yield one. The competition has become increasingly fierce, with Romney's campaign airing ads critical of Huckabee for pardoning murderers and raising taxes and Huckabee calling Romney's criticisms "incredibly desperate and frankly dishonest."

"If a person will become president by being dishonest, just remember, if he becomes president, he likely will not be honest on the job," Huckabee told reporters in Indianola over the weekend.

At an appearance in Altoona on Saturday morning, Romney, standing on a box in the middle of a crowded coffeehouse, did not criticize Huckabee in his remarks, instead offering a speech that touched on the importance of fighting terrorism, being an agent of change, and "strengthen[ing] the American family."

Aaron Finch, a farmer from Earlham, Iowa who had come to see Romney, said he was trying to decide between the former Massachusetts governor and rival Fred Thompson. He said he was drawn to Romney's "good business sense."

"He shares my attitude that you don't dwell on how the problems came about, you dwell on fixing them," he said.

But Cindy Anderson, an associate teacher who lives in Altoona, said she was leaning towards Huckabee.

"He's a Christian," she said. "He's not afraid to stand up for traditional marriage, to stand up for traditional values. They're taking God out of everything and we need to put God back in."

Her husband Steve, a truck mechanic, added that Huckabee "appears to be definitely for the rights of the gun owners."

Huckabee is looser than Romney or Giuliani on the stump, where the earnest, sometimes self-deprecating presentation of social conservatism and economic populism that has propelled him from relative obscurity is often on full display.

"I trust what he says is what he really believes," said Indianola teacher Kristi Dusenbery.

Romney, whose national strategy is built on creating early momentum, had a large lead in Iowa polls until last month, when Huckabee became a significant obstacle. While Huckabee draws enthusiastic crowds and rewards them with oratorically smooth stump speeches, he has taken a pounding on the airwaves throughout the state. Huckabee claims he is being outspent 20-1 in the state and says a victory Thursday would be akin to a miracle. The final results Thursday night will likely depend on whether Huckabee's recent momentum and grassroots movement is enough to withstand Romney's ads and well-financed organization.

Huckabee has seen significant scrutiny of his record from the press in recent months, but he is dependent of free media to push his message, and he continues to make a concerted effort to charm the press. At the end of a question and answer session on Saturday, he stressed his willingness to talk to reporters, saying "I hope you'll appreciate we're trying to be as accessible and available as we can."

"We've got nothing to hide - well, a few things, but not a lot…I'm sure you'll find it," he added, prompting a laugh from reporters.

Thompson, who stands at a distant third or fourth in recent polls in Iowa, said early this month that his campaign was making Iowa "not only our second home, but our first home." Thompson could greatly benefit from a stronger-than-expected finish here, which would give a boost to a campaign that has struggled to generate buzz since Thompson formally entered the race. But while Thompson has been campaigning aggressively in the state, he has somewhat faded from the headlines as reporters have focused on the battle between Romney and Huckabee.

Ron Paul's campaign headquarters in downtown Des Moines is often buzzing late into the Iowa night, and his passionate supporters can be found handing out literature at the events of rival candidates. The Texas representative polls at roughly the same levels as Giuliani in Iowa, and he remains in the single digits nationally. Paul has been splitting time between New Hampshire and Iowa in the hopes of garnering early momentum and will be back in the state on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3.

John McCain spent December 26th and 27th campaigning in Iowa, but he has since moved on to New Hampshire, where recent polls show him running in second place, not far behind Romney. McCain's message is a better fit in the Granite State than it is in Iowa, where his relative moderation on illegal immigration and support of campaign finance reform has angered many primary voters. But McCain has come on here recently, repeatedly polling at more than 10 percent.

"He says what he means. Whether you agree with him or not you know where he stands," said Jeff Smith of Waukee. Smith's friend Bill Koenig of West Des Moines also spoke highly of McCain.

"He has humor," said Koenig. "All these other guys are very scripted and serious."
By Brian Montopoli