Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign plans to begin running a negative television advertisement today in Iowa highlighting Mike Huckabee’s record on immigration, escalating the warfare between the two Republican candidates as they scramble for support in the nation’s first nominating state.
The advertisement starts by saying both men are “good family men” who oppose abortion. But then it says that Mr. Huckabee, as governor of Arkansas, supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and taxpayer-financed scholarships for illegal immigrants.
The commercials are being released as recent polls have shown Mr. Huckabee now leading among early caucusgoers in Iowa, displacing Mr. Romney, who has seen a drift of Christian conservatives and others toward Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister. The immigration issue is a potent one in Iowa, which has had a steady influx of illegal immigrants in recent years.
A spokesman for the Huckabee campaign, Joe Carter, said of the advertisement: “We’re just kind of disappointed that he’s taking this kind of approach. We’d just ask people to compare our proposal on immigration and his, and our record on immigration and his.”
In recent days, Mr. Huckabee has taken a tougher tone in discussing illegal immigration, calling for much stricter border enforcement and forcing those illegal immigrants who want to become citizens to return first to their homelands.
The Huckabee campaign released two new television advertisements yesterday, one focusing on his immigration platform. Called “Secure Borders,” the commercial features a tough-talking Mr. Huckabee addressing a cheering crowd and coming out against sanctuary cities and amnesty for illegal immigrants, and in favor of building a border fence.
The battle over Mr. Huckabee’s immigration record comes as his years as governor of Arkansas are drawing more scrutiny. On Monday, The Associated Press, in a review of Mr. Huckabee’s record on acts of clemency, found that he had granted 1,033 pardons and commutations in his 10 years as governor. This compares with 507 clemencies granted by his three predecessors in the 17 years they were in office.
Those who benefited included the guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, for a traffic offense; David Hale, a Whitewater government witness; and prisoners who critics say had a personal connection to Mr. Huckabee.
Pardons by Mr. Huckabee have become a hot campaign issue, especially as he has come under attack for his controversial role in paroling a rapist, Wayne DuMond, who later raped and killed another woman before being captured.
While the DuMond case continues to follow Mr. Huckabee on the campaign trail, the large number of acts of clemency were controversial within Arkansas while Mr. Huckabee was governor.
“People in Arkansas felt that Huckabee didn’t fully explain in detail the reasons for the large number of pardons,” said Andrew J. Dowdle, assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “These pardons contributed to a diminishing of his luster in Arkansas.”
On the campaign trail yesterday in Miami, a fellow Republican candidate, Fred D. Thompson, criticized Mr. Huckabee’s shift in his position on lifting the Cuban embargo. As governor, Mr. Huckabee backed lifting the embargo, saying it hurt the state’s farmers. But yesterday, Mr. Huckabee told reporters that he would now veto any legislation to lift it and had come to understand the point of view of many Cuban-Americans.
Mr. Thompson accused Mr. Huckabee of changing his views to appeal to voters. “It raises issues when politicians change their view on a dime to appeal to a particular group of people right before an election,” Mr. Thompson said.
Michael Cooper and Michael Luo contributed reporting.