DAVENPORT, Iowa — Mike Huckabee is Mitt Romney's new favorite target.
Huckabee's too liberal on economic issues, Romney said, standing by a snow bank beside the gleaming Mississippi River. He pardons murderers. Coddles illegal immigrants. Is naive on foreign policy.
As Romney traveled through South Carolina and Iowa this week, he ripped the former Arkansas governor in speeches, ads and messages to supporters and reporters. Huckabee fought back not only by defending his record but also by turning the other cheek, telling TV viewers in an ad, "God bless, and Merry Christmas."
For Romney, the Christmas spirit can wait a few days. The former Massachusetts governor, who ran for that job in 2002 as a moderate, put up his own ad this week tearing into Huckabee for pardoning or commuting the prison sentences of more than a thousand people.
At a news conference in Spartanburg, S.C., a reporter asked Romney about Huckabee, who's skyrocketed in recent polls and threatens Romney's campaign strategy of piling up victories in the early caucuses and primaries. Romney responded with a shot at Huckabee:
"He fought for giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants," he said.
That's largely true, though with an asterisk. The children of undocumented aliens couldn't qualify for in-state college tuition in Arkansas, and in 2005 Huckabee backed a plan to allow some people who'd arrived in the United States illegally to get those rates. The measure didn't become law in Arkansas.
What seems to rile Romney most these days, though, is Huckabee's record on releasing prisoners. Romney reiterated Wednesday that, during his four years as governor, he'd denied all 272 requests for pardons or commutations.
"We had guidelines we followed," he said. "I granted none of the requests. If the person was convicted of a crime, they ought to do the time."
This week Romney was asked for his views on two other pardon controversies. First, he'd said earlier this year that President Bush's decision to commute the two-and-a-half year sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former vice presidential chief of staff, was "reasonable."
This week he explained why: Prosecutors pursued a case in which, he judged, no crime had been committed.
Second, Romney defended his refusal twice to pardon Anthony Circosta, an Iraq war veteran and Bronze Star winner who was convicted at age 13 of assaulting a boy by shooting him with a BB gun.
"I did not want to provide commutations to any people who had had weapons violations that were going to be asking to use weapons in their new capacity," Romney said. Circosta wanted to become a police officer.
None of that, Romney asserts, compares with Huckabee's record in 10 and a half years as the governor of Arkansas, when he pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,033 people, including 12 convicted murderers.
"Huckabee granted more clemencies than three previous governors combined," Romney's new ad charges.
Huckabee told the Associated Press that he acted responsibly and with discretion as he reviewed each request.
Romney leveled other attacks too.
"On issues of economic vitality, Governor Huckabee's record is more liberal" than it appears, he said. Huckabee presided over hundreds of billions of dollars in tax increases in Arkansas, but he also backed large tax cuts.
Romney's blasts at Huckabee are born of political frustration; some 63 percent of South Carolina Republicans are evangelical or born-again Christians, and Huckabee, a Baptist minister from a Southern state, is a comfortable figure there.
So comfortable, in fact, that his latest ad doesn't fight back. It's as warm and fuzzy as any seasonal ad on TV.
"At this time of year," Huckabee says in the ad, which is running in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, "sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that (negative politics) and remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ, and being with our family and friends."