"John McCain, an honorable man. But is he the right Republican for the future?" an announcer asks in the ad that starts airing Friday in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first presidential primary on Jan. 8. "McCain opposes repeal of the death tax. And voted against the Bush tax cuts - twice. McCain pushed to let every illegal immigrant stay here permanently. Even voted to allow illegals to collect Social Security."
For his part, McCain has a fresh commercial in New Hampshire that takes the high road by not mentioning Romney. Rather, it highlights the 20 newspapers in the state that have endorsed McCain and quotes their words of praise, including "McCain campaigns with decency." It adds: "All across New Hampshire newspapers agree. The choice is clear."
Romney's commercial assailing McCain - aides call it a "contrast" ad - comes as the race between the two men tightens in New Hampshire. The ad is in the same vein as spots Romney has been airing in Iowa against, casting him as soft on immigration and crime in an effort to retake the lead for the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.
The former Massachusetts governor's willingness to go after his opponents - and risk the ire of voters who could punish him for negative campaigning - underscores the high stakes of the contests in both states as well as the tenuous state of his own bid.
Romney's strategy hinges on using momentum from back-to-back wins in those states to make him unstoppable in battlegrounds beyond. He once led by large margins in the first two states but now finds himself threatened on both fronts.
Polls show Huckabee's advantage in Iowa narrowing in the past few weeks as Romney has gone on the attack. Romney's aides suspect Huckabee's support in Iowa may have peaked, and they argue that their campaign's superior get-out-the-vote operation might be able to close the gap and help Romney prevail next week.
While Romney has battled Huckabee in Iowa, McCain has gained ground in New Hampshire and benefited from former New York Mayorslippage in polls here. McCain won the Northeastern state in 2000, and still is beloved by a large contingent of die-hard backers. He is putting almost all of his resources into the state and essentially camping out there as he seeks a repeat win - and a comeback after a near campaign implosion during the summer.
It's little surprise Romney is taking his criticism of McCain to the airwaves; he used the same approach against Huckabee in Iowa.
As McCain has moved up in polls, Romney has sharpened his rhetoric against him. In recent days, Romney has accused McCain of "failing Reagan 101" by twice voting against major Bush administration tax cuts. He also has suggested the Arizona senator supported amnesty for illegal immigrants, although McCain has said he wants them to register with the government.
After laying the groundwork through the "earned media" of news coverage, Romney now is trying to spread that message through paid media in hopes of undercutting McCain.
The ad shows pictures of McCain and Romney and says: "There is a difference." It eviscerates McCain on taxes and immigration only to praise Romney's record on taxes and spending as Massachusetts governor and argue that he "opposes amnesty for illegals."
Taxes and immigration are trouble spots for McCain.
Some Republicans view him skeptically for breaking with Bush on taxes; he now says he supports extending the tax cuts because doing otherwise would amount to a tax increase. McCain also has been dogged by his support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes an eventual path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants; he now tells voters that he got the message earlier this year when one such bill failed in Congress and that the borders must be secured first.