DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney attacked rival Mike Huckabee for criticizing President George W. Bush’s foreign policy on Wednesday, while a new poll showed the race among Democrats in Iowa still neck-and-neck.
As candidates revved up their campaigns before taking a brief Christmas break, some released advertisements evoking the holiday spirit, including one from Republican Rudy Giuliani that featured Santa Claus.
All were light-hearted and none of them provoked the criticism that Huckabee did earlier in the week with a “Merry Christmas” advertisement that included a book shelf behind him that looked like a cross.
Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher seeking support from Christian evangelicals in Iowa, rejected criticism of the ad.
Iowa on January 3 starts the state-by-state process to pick the Democratic and Republican candidates who will face off in the presidential election on November 4, 2008. A win in Iowa can generate momentum for the battles to come rapidly afterward.
Romney, who has lost a big lead to Huckabee in Iowa, sought to raise doubts about his rival’s foreign policy credentials, saying his criticism of Bush’s foreign policy was more suitable for a Democrat than a Republican.
Last week, Huckabee said the Bush administration’s “arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad” and promised that he as president would reach out to the rest of the world.
“I think Gov. Huckabee made a significant error in insulting the president as being subject to an arrogant bunker mentality,” Romney said in Davenport, Iowa. “I disagree with that. I think the president is a man who has acted out of a desire to do what is right for America.”
Romney, who said in August that he would not be a “carbon copy” of Bush if elected president but has supported his troop build-up in Iraq, wants to peel conservative Republican voters away from Huckabee. They are voters who tend to show up in the party’s nominating contests.
Huckabee has come out of nowhere to lead Republican polls in Iowa and challenge Giuliani for the lead in national polls. He defended his words in an MSNBC interview but said he was criticizing the Bush administration, not Bush himself.
“I don’t apologize for that because I think that when we’re engaged in the world, we need to make sure that even if we call people to join us in a multilateral approach to fighting terrorism, if they don’t do it on our terms we don’t say that they’re with the enemy. That’s a very dangerous position to take,” Huckabee said.
A Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday said Huckabee has wiped out an 18-point deficit in one month to pull within one point of Giuliani, 23 percent to 22 percent, nationally.
Among Democrats, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s national advantage over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama shrunk slightly from 11 to 8 points since last month.
While Clinton leads nationally, all eyes are on a tight three-way race in Iowa between her, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll said 33 percent of Iowans planning to vote in the state’s January 3 contest support Obama, compared to 29 percent for Clinton and 20 percent for Edwards.
The poll comes amid a five-day tour of Iowa by Clinton, the former first lady seeking to become the first woman U.S. president. She is trying to warm up her image with personal stories from friends and loyalists.
Giuliani, who was New York mayor during the September 11 attacks, issued a Web ad wishing for peace with strength, secure borders against illegal immigration and lower taxes.
“And I really hope that all of the presidential candidates can just get along,” he says.
Red-suited Santa Claus chimes in: “Ho, ho, ho. I was with you right up until that last one.”
Obama’s holiday ad featured him, wife Michelle and their two children in front of a Christmas tree with a message that highlights “the things that unite us as a people.”
Clinton, in her holiday ad, is surrounded by festively wrapped gifts with labels on them that represented her own wish list, such as “bring troops home.”
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
Writing by Steve Holland, editing by David Alexander and Alan Elsner