In the wide-open race for the GOP presidential nomination, with five-plus weeks until the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaigns of the top candidates are scattering accusations and snippets of "opposition research" like birdshot in the hopes of winging an opponent. Facts are sometimes among the casualties.
Mitt Romney, the poll leader in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner in national polls, are the most frequent duelists, but Fred Thompson, John McCain, and, increasingly, the surging Mike Huckabee are also mixing it up in combinations that change depending on the issue, the day, or the latest poll result.
"The Republicans are acting like Democrats, who as they used to say form a circular firing squad in the primaries," said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "For the first time in a very long time, there's an absence of a consensus candidate for Republicans . . . There's all this uncertainty and a lot of grappling to fit into different roles in the race."
The Republican candidates square off tonight in a key debate in Florida, one of the early primary states in this election's compressed cycle. And most analysts expect more fireworks.
"The field is so fractured," said Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant who is not aligned with any of the candidates. "These guys can no longer define themselves, so they've got to define each other."
Few issues have been as emotional in the GOP race as illegal immigration. While the candidates don't differ greatly on core policies, they have often battled for the symbolic high ground. Romney, for example, has repeatedly attacked Giuliani over "sanctuary cities," a buzz phrase designed to paint his rival as soft on immigration during his eight years as mayor of New York.
Giuliani's camp has fired back, arguing that Romney, while governor, stood silent while Bay State cities and towns proudly declared that immigrants, regardless of legal status, need not fear their local government if they were otherwise law-abiding. Not just the liberal bastions and melting pots of Cambridge and Somerville, but also, Giuliani's campaign asserted, the towns of Lexington, Orleans, and Brewster.
Lexington, Orleans, and Brewster? An upscale Boston suburb and two quite white Cape Cod towns favored by retirees?
Officials of all three towns were surprised to learn they've become grist in the presidential campaign mill. And all three say their communities are not, by any definition, sanctuary towns harboring undocumented immigrants.
In 2003 and 2004, Orleans, Brewster, and Lexington town meetings all passed resolutions opposing some provisions of the federal Patriot Act, including local enforcement of federal immigration laws. But officials from all three towns say those votes hardly amount to becoming an illegal immigrant sanctuary.
"It was all about the Patriot Act; it had nothing to do with this sanctuary thing," said John P. Hinckley Jr., a selectman in Orleans, who had forgotten about the measure until asked by the Globe. "It was simply an opinion of Town Meeting. To my knowledge, the selectmen have never done anything about it."
"I'd forgotten about this issue," Charles Sumner, town administrator of nearby Brewster, said when asked about the resolution passed at a Special Town Meeting in November 2003. The summary of the warrant article says: "The purpose of this article is to take a second look at federal laws and regulations which were meant to address terrorist threats, most notably the USA Patriot Act." It also asked local officials "to protect the civil liberties of Brewster residents, to the extent permissible by law."
Jeanne Krieger, chairwoman of the Lexington board of selectmen, said of that town's vote: "Even after the resolution, it was never anything we felt the need to enforce. In all honesty, I don't think it was an immigration issue; it was about freedom of speech and other aspects of the Patriot Act."
John "Toby" Sackton, an advocate of the Lexington petition, said supporters believed that a federal mandate for the town to enforce national immigration laws was "a violation of local control" and was amazed it has surfaced as an issue in the national campaign. "This is really surprising," he said. "I'm sure some campaign researcher dug this up."
The finer details of issues have not always figured prominently in the heat of the exchanges on the GOP trail.
Roaring out of the Thanksgiving break last weekend, both Romney and Giuliani traded shots for two days running on a variety of issues - spending, tax cuts, crime, healthcare, and appointments - as they stumped in New Hampshire, where Giuliani is redoubling his efforts to catch Romney.
Giuliani and Romney have used increasingly harsh language against each other. But in the past five days, Romney and Thompson have also zinged Huckabee for advocating driver's licenses and tuition breaks for illegal immigrants while governor of Arkansas; Huckabee hammered Romney for shifting positions on abortion and gay rights; McCain whacked both Giuliani and Huckabee for their lack of military and foreign policy experience; and Giuliani's campaign issued a release criticizing Thompson's record on taxes while serving as a senator from Tennessee.
So much for Ronald Reagan's "11th commandment" - "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
In recent days, Giuliani's campaign has sought to contrast Romney's comments on the campaign trail with his record as governor.
Romney insists that sanctuary communities are "magnets" for illegal immigrants and, if he's elected, will be punished. But if the words "sanctuary city" ever crossed Romney's mind during four years as governor, there's no record of it.
"When he was governor, I never heard him take a position on it," said Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.