Mitt Romney, despite heavy spending and intensive campaigning, finds himself in a tightening battle with Mike Huckabee in Iowa, forcing Romney to confront aggressively an opponent with far less money and organizational backing who was far back in the polls a few weeks ago.
Huckabee appeared to delight in the attention from Romney, who blasted Huckabee for having fought for tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants while governor of Arkansas.
"The fact that I am being attacked is a good sign," Huckabee said yesterday on Fox News Channel. "It's a sign of life. This is hunting season. I'm a hunter. You don't ever point your gun at a dead carcass. A lot of folks are pointing at me."
Seven weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses, a New York Times/CBS News Poll published yesterday had Romney capturing support from 27 percent of likely Republican voters, but Huckabee within striking range with 21 percent. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was third with 15 percent, Fred Thompson had 9 percent, and John McCain and Ron Paul had 4 percent each. As recently as September, Huckabee was in the single digits.
"It happened," a memo from the Huckabee campaign said yesterday. "We broke 20% in Iowa, which pulled us to within 6% of Governor Romney!"
Huckabee has been staking much of his campaign on Iowa, hoping that a win in caucuses there, the first nomination votes of 2008, will vault his relatively shoestring candidacy to prominence in delegate-rich states. Romney has invested heavily in Iowa as part of his strategy to capture the early-voting states.
Romney's aides sought to downplay Huckabee's surge. "This latest public poll indicates Governor Romney's campaign is right where it needs it to be in Iowa: in a competitive position as the caucus date draws closer," spokesman Kevin Madden wrote in an e-mail yesterday to reporters.
But in recent days, Romney has clearly been taking Huckabee more seriously, hammering him for backing the tuition break plan. "Giving a better deal to the children of illegal aliens than we give to US citizens from surrounding states is simply not fair and not right," Romney told reporters during a stop in Iowa on Tuesday.
Huckabee has said the plan gave merit scholarships to children of illegal immigrants, provided they were applying for citizenship. He has argued that barring those children would penalize them for their parents' misdeeds.
On Fox News yesterday, Huckabee was more pointed in his response to Romney: "I guess Mitt Romney would rather keep people out of college so they can keep working on his lawn, since he had illegals there."
That refers to a Globe report in December that the landscaping service working on Romney's lawn in Belmont employed several illegal immigrants. Romney has said his family checked that the employer was legal, but didn't know about the workers.
A University of Iowa political scientist, Bruce Gronbeck, predicted a tight race between Huckabee and Romney, "and then you get to the question of who comes out on a cold January night," he said. On that score, Gronbeck gave the advantage to Romney's fund-raising and vast network of backers.
"That could be the difference," Gronbeck said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.