Just one month ago, Mitt Romney’s supporters thought that they had Iowa fairly well in hand. But there was Mr. Romney last week, telling several hundred people at a high school cafeteria in Marion that he was the underdog and pleading for their help to keep him from being derailed at the caucuses by the rise of Mike Huckabee.
“You’re going to do something which people don’t expect,” Mr. Romney told them, “which is give me a victory.”
His campaign is working feverishly to right itself, zeroing in on Mr. Huckabee’s past moderate record on immigration with critical television advertisements, a mailing and recorded phone calls from a former Arkansas lawmaker who says, “I know Mike Huckabee’s a likable guy, but I also know what he did to our state.”
As the Democratic candidates crisscrossed Iowa on Sunday, the Republicans pounded one another, with Mr. Huckabee’s ascendancy rippling across the field. Mr. Romney demanded that Mr. Huckabee apologize to President Bush for comments he made about the administration’s foreign policy, with Mr. Huckabee firing back, while Fred D. Thompson flung the ultimate conservative insult, calling him a “liberal.” Senator John McCain of Arizona, meanwhile, was gathering endorsements, including one expected Monday from Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was on the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000.
The campaign most immediately threatened by Mr. Huckabee’s rise was that of Mr. Romney. One senior Romney adviser, Ronald C. Kaufman, said of Mr. Huckabee’s campaign, “Am I worried? Of course I am.” But, Mr. Kaufman added, “At the end of the game, you want the ball in Tom Brady’s hands, or the mike in Mitt Romney’s hands, and I have faith in our team.”
Mr. Romney now faces a two-front battle — in Iowa, which holds its caucuses on Jan. 3, and in New Hampshire, whose primary is on Jan. 8.
Mr. Huckabee’s rise also comes at a delicate time for Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been slipping in national polls and who failed to lift his standing in New Hampshire with a heavy advertising campaign. Mr. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, scaled back his advertising in New Hampshire so he could marshal his resources for later states.
The rise of Mr. Huckabee could help Mr. Giuliani in one way: If Mr. Romney is defeated in Iowa, he heads into New Hampshire weakened, unsettling the field and clearing the way for Mr. Giuliani’s national strategy. That strategy counts on a victory on Jan. 29 in Florida to propel his candidacy in the nationwide primaries of Feb. 5, when important moderate states like New York and California vote.
Campaigning over the weekend showed the chaotic interplay of the race. Mr. Romney finished a swing through Iowa that was meant to try to stem the rise of Mr. Huckabee there but hurried back to New Hampshire to defend his flank there.
And Mr. Giuliani, who chose Florida to refocus his campaign, gave a rare formal speech on Saturday in which he called for leading a “revitalized, 50-state Republican Party into the White House.” But he found his address overshadowed that day by news of Mr. Huckabee’s attack on the Bush administration’s foreign policy, describing an “arrogant bunker mentality” in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine.
he article landed as Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who is the central player in the drama, was in New Hampshire through the weekend, hoping his recent momentum would help slice into the edge that Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, holds in his neighboring state.
The scene in New Hampshire showed the altered state of the Huckabee campaign. Only two or three reporters followed him on his last visit. This time, more than three dozen turned out to track his movements.
But Mr. Huckabee’s campaign showed the strains of its own success. Its e-mail service was down for 24 hours, forcing it to rely on old-fashioned phone calls.
The Giuliani campaign professes delight at Mr. Huckabee’s rapid rise, but it could ultimately cost Mr. Giuliani, whose drop in national polls came after news accounts questioned his business dealings and his personal life. Now Mr. Huckabee is essentially tied with Mr. Giuliani in several national polls, which could undermine one of the Giuliani campaign’s central arguments: that he is the strongest Republican candidate nationwide.
One of Mr. Giuliani’s chief political advisers, Anthony V. Carbonetti, dismissed the notion that Mr. Huckabee could politically endanger Mr. Giuliani.
“Huckabee is roughly where Thompson was when he got his bump,” Mr. Carbonetti said, referring to the former senator from Tennessee whose star has dimmed since entering the race at the end of the summer. “It’s something we’ve seen before. But the one constant is us on top. We’re now on the third generation of No. 2’s: there was McCain, Thompson and now Huckabee.”
But Mr. Giuliani’s decisions not to focus on Iowa and to scale back his efforts in New Hampshire pose other risks. He could have to wait nearly a month for his first victory, time in which another candidate might gain momentum. More immediately, he risks falling off the media radar screen as news organizations concentrate on the race in Iowa.
The McCain campaign is also trying to seize on Mr. Romney’s troubles in Iowa. It believes that a defeat there for Mr. Romney would put Mr. McCain in a position to pull off an upset in their must-win state, New Hampshire, where they have pinned their hopes for a comeback.
“Mike Huckabee gives us a new deck of cards to play with,” said Mr. McCain’s campaign manger, Rick Davis. “And anything that gives us a new deck of cards is a good thing.”
In Iowa, the Romney campaign believes that its vastly superior ground operation is worth several percentage points and can help it close a gap in the polls by bringing out enough supporters to grind out a victory on caucus night.
“We’re going to be represented in every precinct caucus,” said Gentry Collins, the Romney campaign’s Iowa state director. “Is that something other campaigns are prepared to do? My sense is, probably not.”
Mr. Huckabee is being helped by conservative Christian voters. But Mr. Romney’s advisers point out that in past Iowa caucuses, the favored candidates of the Christian right, including Pat Robertson, who pulled off a second-place finish there in 1988, have topped out with somewhere around 25 percent of the vote.
To capitalize on his momentum, Mr. Huckabee is focusing on the parts of his message beyond social conservatism, like the environment, a break from the Bush administration’s foreign policy and a sort of economic populism. He is also shifting his positions by adopting a harder-line stance on immigration.
Mr. Huckabee, in his latest campaign swing through New Hampshire, sounded almost like John Edwards, a Democrat running for president, when he decried what he called “fat cat” chief executive officers and their outsize paychecks.
Still, Mr. Romney’s advisers think they will be able to win back fiscally conservative caucusgoers worried about the economy and immigration. “That’s the piece we have to bring back,” said Alex Gage, his director of strategy.
In Iowa last week, Mr. Romney regularly tore into Mr. Huckabee’s record, sometimes bringing it up directly with audiences in town hall forums and other times waiting to do it with reporters afterward. And after the Foreign Affairs article, he questioned Mr. Huckabee’s Republicanism.
“That’s an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president,” Mr. Romney said Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”
The Romney campaign’s decision to directly engage Mr. Huckabee carries risk; Iowans are known to dislike negative campaigning. But Mr. Romney’s advisers are convinced that they must begin to draw contrasts with Mr. Huckabee, preferably before Christmas, because they believe he has not been scrutinized enough by the news media in Iowa.
Mr. Huckabee has been ramping up his organization in Iowa, but it still remains far behind Mr. Romney’s. The campaign recently doubled the office space at its headquarters in downtown Des Moines; it now has 17 paid employees in Iowa, up from 3 over the summer. The campaign is broadcasting commercials in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and is preparing its first mailing in Iowa.
But the campaign remains bare bones in many ways. It has not had the money to do any polling. The campaign predicts that it will have precinct captains in the major caucus precincts, but not in all of them. Mr. Huckabee’s Iowa state director, Eric Woolson, got a BlackBerry only about a month ago.
Also in the mix is Mr. Thompson, whose late entrance in the campaign failed to resonate with the conservative voters who are now flocking to Mr. Huckabee. Mr. Thompson sees Iowa as his best chance to get back in the game. So his campaign is moving to Iowa, where it plans two bus tours — starting Monday — that total some 16 days on the road before and after Christmas.
But the greatest uncertainty lies in whether Mr. Huckabee can seriously compete beyond Iowa. His trip to New Hampshire over the weekend put that to the test. And while sizable crowds turned out, many seemed to have been drawn more by the star power of the actor Chuck Norris.
The Giuliani campaign believes that Mr. Huckabee’s momentum will fade. But its decision to scale back advertising in New Hampshire is telling. From Nov. 10 through Dec. 9, the Giuliani campaign spent $1.7 million on commercials in New Hampshire, compared with $1.3 million by Mr. Romney and $1.2 million by Mr. McCain, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which estimates advertising expenditures.
Although Mr. Giuliani will cut back on advertising in New Hampshire, he is not writing off the state; he plans to campaign there Monday.