For at least a year, Mitt Romney worked to keep his Mormon faith away from the center of his campaign for the White House. And for months, Hillary Rodham Clinton largely steered clear of criticizing her Democratic rivals.
Now, locked in unpredictable, tight races in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, both the Democratic senator from New York and the Republican former governor of Massachusetts are shifting course. Clinton's decision to assail Sen. Barack Obama and Romney's speech Thursday on religious faith are seen by pros in both parties as signs that the status quo carried potential dangers.
"It was Napoleon who said, 'No plan has ever survived contact with the enemy,'" said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is not affiliated with any candidate in the 2008 race. "The truth is these campaigns are really for the first time coming into contact with the enemy. And so they've got to change plans."
"Clearly Romney changed his position in terms of delivering a major speech," said David Winston, a Republican pollster not aligned with any of the candidates. "I think part of what's going on is there must be an internal assessment that the campaign is having some difficulty and they've decided that this is the explanation that's required to get him back on track."
Winston and Mellman said that while the decisions carry risks, they are outweighed by the potential danger of doing nothing for Clinton, the national front-runner for months, as well as Romney, who until recently appeared to hold comfortable leads in Iowa.
Speaking of the Democratic race, Mellman added: "When you go on the attack you don't know who you're going to help." It's possible a third or fourth candidate could benefit, he added, meaning that Obama and Clinton could both suffer, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards gain.
Romney, in his speech Thursday, sought to ease skeptics' concerns about electing a Mormon president.
"I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it," Romney said at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. However, he said, "I do not define my candidacy by my religion." He added: "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
In purely political terms, Romney's Mormon faith has been an impediment from the start. A Pew Research Center poll in September found a quarter of all Republicans — including 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants — said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.
Even though the topic was discussed at several points, Romney did not decide until recently to give a speech on religious faith, according to several individuals familiar with his campaign.
"Times have changed and particularly in a state like Iowa, there's been interest in religion generally, and I think religion does have a very important role in our society and therefore it's important to talk about our religious heritage," Romney said recently.
At the same time, his once solid lead in the Iowa polls has vanished as evangelical voters have coalesced behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister. Huckabee's ascent began last summer when he eclipsed Sen. Sam Brownback for second place in a straw poll at the Iowa State Fair. Former Sen. Fred Thompson's entrance into the race was another obstacle to be overcome. But Brownback departed the race in October and Thompson's support has gradually slipped. Huckabee has pulled even or slightly ahead despite a low-budget campaign in a state where Romney has spent millions.
Then, there are the scurrilous attacks.
One e-mail making the rounds purports to be from Romney himself, and consists of an invitation to Iowa voters to "join me, a born-Mormon, and a growing number of disenchanted Christians in believing the following tenets of the Mormon religion." It lists several, each one likely more objectionable to Christian conservative caucus-goers than the last.
"Mormon men can have multiple wives in heaven — eternal polygamy," says one tenet, while another claims that "God the father had sex with Mary to conceive Jesus, who is the half brother of Lucifer."
Clinton responds to attacks
As nationwide front-runner, Clinton had largely shrugged off attacks from Obama, Edwards and others. As recently as Nov. 10, at a high-profile dinner attended by all the Democratic contenders, she told an Iowa audience, "I'm not interested in attacking my opponents. I'm interested in attacking the problems of America."
But she had turned in an admittedly sub-par debate performance 10 days earlier, and now it was Obama who came away from the Jefferson-Jackson dinner with glowing reviews.
By the night of a Nov. 15 debate, Clinton shelved whatever reluctance she had about responding to her attackers. She accused Edwards of slinging mud "right out of the Republican playbook" and said Obama supported a health care plan that left out 15 million Americans.
"When your opponents attack, you need to respond and Senator Clinton is doing just that," spokesman Phil Singer said on Wednesday.
In the days since, she and her campaign have refined their strategy — leaving Edwards largely alone while hitting Obama incessantly on health care, accusing him of failing to be sufficiently supportive of abortion rights while in the Illinois Legislature and more.
Last week, en route from South Carolina to Texas, her plane put down in Iowa, where she suggested the health care issue stood for something more fundamental. "If anything, Democrats should stand for universal health care," she said last week. "That distinguishes us from the Republicans. The Republicans don't believe in it. Democrats do and we should fight for it."
Over the weekend, her aides depicted Obama as a lifelong politician. As evidence, they cited an essay he wrote in kindergarten titled, "I want to become president."
At the same time, Clinton's television commercials take a different approach.
Her latest Iowa ad shows retired Gen. Wesley Clark saying, "I see that Hillary's opponents have started attacking her. That's politics."