Politics, Now Wrapped In Holiday Cheer

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

With the crucial Iowa caucuses coming on Jan. 3rd, not long after the holidays, presidential candidates face a problem: How can they keep their faces front and center when advertising and campaigning could send the message that they're craven, overly-ambitious politicians perfectly happy to trash their opponents on Christmas morning?

Part of the solution, it seems, is to run political ads that don't look like political ads - the traditional kind, anyway. And most everyone is getting in on the action. Mike Huckabee kicked things off with a Christmas message that sparked controversy thanks to a bookshelf in the background that looks suspiciously like a white cross. Subtle message to evangelicals or plain old piece of furniture? Decide for yourself:

Huckabee laughed off suggestions that he was sending a secret message to believers, joking that "if you play the spot backwards it says, 'Paul is dead. Paul is dead.'" His rival Ron Paul wasn't smiling, however: He said the ad reminds him "of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He says, 'when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.'"

Paul's holiday ad features what appears to be his extended family singing "Deck The Halls" - a song, you'll note, conspicuously absent of religious language. It shows a Ron Paul we rarely see - not the memorable firebrand of the GOP debates but a warm and fuzzy family man in a bright red shirt.

Rudy Giuliani's spot, meanwhile, features the former New York City mayor in a red sweater, telling folks what he wishes for this holiday season - secure borders, lower taxes...and that "all the presidential candidates can just get along." After he says that, the camera pulls back. It's Santa! Mr. Claus and Mr. Giuliani share laugh in a spot seemingly designed to humanize Giuliani while also making a case for the candidate. (In a similar video released only on the web, Giuliani talks about the gifts he is looking to give, including strict constructionist judges, job growth...and a fruitcake.) Have a look:

There is no laughter in John Edwards' spot, in which the candidate uses the occasion to talk about homeless veterans and Americans living in poverty while in front of a Christmas tree. "This is the season of miracles, of faith and love," says Edwards, pushing his populist message. "So let us promise together - you will never be forgotten again."

Sen. Barack Obama's ad is a family affair, and it looks like a Christmas card: Michelle Obama, sitting in front of the tree and holiday stockings with Barack and the kids, opens the spot by thanking Americans "for the warmth and friendship" they've shown. Her husband talks about American unity and references "something larger than ourselves," and then the girls get the last word: One says "Merry Christmas" while the other offers "happy holidays." No talk of health care mandates here:

Sen. Hillary Clinton's spot has her preparing gifts, but you won't find any Nintendo Wiis: The boxes include tags saying "universal health care," "alternative energy," and "bring troops home." Towards the end Clinton, looking around, wonders aloud, "Where did I put universal Pre-K?" Along with Giuliani's spot, it's the most issue oriented of the bunch:

Sen. John McCain, unlike Huckabee, isn't shy about featuring a cross in his spot. "One night, after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain," he says in the ad. "On Christmas, that same guard approached me, and without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas." McCain goes on to talk about how "no matter where you are, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there will always be someone who will pick you up."

Finally, Mitt Romney's holiday spot isn't, on its face, a holiday spot at all. It features Robert Gay, whose 14-year-old daughter disappeared in New York City. Gay was Romney's business partner, and he talks about how Romney closed down their company, set up a command center, and sent employees out to look for the girl, who eventually turned up in the New Jersey town of Montville. "Mitt's done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible," Gay says at the end of the clip, "but for me the most important thing he's ever done is to help save my daughter."

By Brian Montopoli