His shot at the Republican presidential nomination in jeopardy, Mitt Romney will begin running a TV ad against Iowa front-runner Mike Huckabee on illegal immigration starting Tuesday while weighing how much negative campaigning he can add to the methodical plan he's followed all year.
The ad says the former governors have a lot in common — but not on illegal immigration, an important issue in Iowa, which will lead off nomination voting with its caucuses on Jan. 3.
"Mitt Romney stood up, and vetoed in-state tuition for illegal aliens, opposed driver's licenses for illegals," the ad says. "Mike Huckabee? Supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Huckabee even supported taxpayer-funded college scholarships for illegal aliens."
"On immigration, the choice matters," the ad ends.
With Huckabee surging in Iowa — and showing strength nationally as well — Romney offers positive as well as negative words on his rival.
"Two former governors. Two good family men. Both pro-life. Both support a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage," the ad says — then it focuses on what it says are stark differences on illegal immigration.
Romney's campaign characterized the "contrast ad" — the first in which he names a rival — as a reaction to Huckabee's own new TV commercial in which he touts his immigration proposal.
The elevated rhetoric — including the Romney campaign's mass e-mailing Monday of an anti-Huckabee Web column — reflects a growing sense of urgency at Romney headquarters, where the game plan all year has been predicated on bowling over rivals with victories in lead-voting Iowa and New Hampshire.
With Huckabee taking the lead in polls in Iowa and Sen. John McCain of Arizona coming on in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 8, campaign officials have been debating whether to hit harder or simply take shots only as they present themselves.
Huckabee also has moved up in national surveys that had long shown Rudy Giuliani leading. A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. survey has Giuliani and Huckabee essentially tied for the top spot, 24 percent for Giuliani, 22 percent for Huckabee. Just last month in this survey, Giuliani had 28 percent and Huckabee 10 percent.
Romney officials are divided over how serious the threat is, noting that Huckabee is just beginning to face the same media scrutiny Romney has already encountered but also operating under the assumption that "Huckabee is for real."
In Iowa, Romney has lost his monthslong lead to Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and one-time Baptist preacher who is a favorite among religious conservatives who could be pivotal in the state's GOP caucuses.
On Monday, Huckabee started running a TV ad in Iowa promoting his plan to fight illegal immigration.
"It ought to be at least as difficult to get across an international border as it is to get on an airplane in our own home town," Huckabee says in the ad. "We need to make it clear that we will say no to amnesty and no to sanctuary cities," he says. "Our government has failed us. Build a border fence. Secure the border and do it now."
For weeks, Romney's campaign has been wrestling over whether to run hard-hitting ads on what aides consider the former Arkansas governor's most vulnerable spots — taxes, immigration, ethics and prisoner parole — or go softer and gamble that Huckabee is an object of curiosity whose popularity will fade with scrutiny and wilt under the challenge of Romney's strong ground organization.
As Huckabee has risen, Romney has assailed him, particularly on immigration, but his criticism hasn't seemed to slow Huckabee's rise. Iowa Republicans also have received literature in their mailboxes characterizing Huckabee and three other Republican candidates as soft on illegal immigration. The mail piece specifically describes Huckabee as committed to "eligibility for state-supported college scholarships." Officials say more such direct mail pieces are planned along with the immigration TV ad.
In the e-mail sent Monday, under the banner, "Those who know him the best," the campaign quotes Arkansas Republican Jackson T. "Steve" Stephens Jr. lamenting that he did not mount a planned gubernatorial challenge to Huckabee in 1991.
"If I had it to do over again, I would probably challenge Huckabee," Stephens said in the column on TownHall.com, complaining about Huckabee's fiscal record.
On the other side of the ledger, Romney is well aware of the Democratic race in Iowa in 2004, when Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt watched their strong standing in the state evaporate after running negative ads. They never recovered. John Kerry and John Edwards benefited.
As he deals with Iowa, Romney also is carefully watching his standing in New Hampshire, where public polls show him leading by a wide margin as McCain and Giuliani duke it out for second place.
But internal Romney surveys show McCain in a solid second-place position and inching up in the state, where he won in 2000 over George W. Bush, while Giuliani has slipped.
Unlike Romney, McCain has the luxury of a strategy that lets him camp out in New Hampshire in the homestretch.
He spent six days last week traversing the state after he secured the coveted endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Curt Schilling, the Red Sox pitcher beloved in the Northeast, joined him on the trail for a day, and filmed a TV ad for McCain. The candidate returns to the state Sunday.
Other challenges creating angst within Romney headquarters:
—He cast himself as the most hard-line conservative candidate on cultural issues from his campaign's outset, and, in doing so, watched as religion — and his Mormon faith — became a focal point of the race as he squared off against Huckabee.
In a strategy shift, Romney gave a religion speech last week; it got mixed reviews.
—Romney has sought to be seen as a firm opponent of illegal immigration, a salient issue in Iowa in particular, and made it a centerpiece of his campaign in this state.
But his pitch was undercut last week when he learned for a second time that his landscaping company had allowed undocumented workers to labor at his suburban Boston home. Romney promptly fired the company after giving its owner a second chance last year.
—Romney hasn't been able to shake the notion that he's inauthentic, given his record of reversing course on abortion rights — he now opposes them — and shifting to the right on various other issues as he embarked on his candidacy.