DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney's blistering ads criticizing Mike Huckabee and John McCain drew sharp rebukes from their targets and wary responses from voters Saturday, as candidates barnstormed Iowa five days before the nation's first presidential voting takes place in caucuses here.
Candidates tried to set a lofty tone in person — Romney in his stump speech offered themes like "my vision for America is an optimistic one." But such messages were drowned out by the shrill debate over attack ads.
Romney launched a new one against McCain in New Hampshire on Saturday.
"McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant stay in American permanently," the 30-second TV spot says. "He even voted to allow illegal immigrants to collect Social Security."
McCain has long championed allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if they fulfill certain requirements.
The tone was similar to one Romney rolled out Friday in Iowa against Huckabee.
"Soft on government spending," the ad charges. "His foreign policy? 'Ludicrous,' says Condoleezza Rice.
Huckabee's also taken heat from an ad put up by the independent Club for Growth, an anti-tax group spending more than $500,000 to persuade Iowa Republicans that the former Arkansas governor is a tax raiser.
The ad shows Huckabee, during his unflattering obese years, trying to persuade the Arkansas legislature to raise some taxes. It doesn't mention that he lowered many others.
Huckabee fought back Saturday.
"Every time you turn on your television you're going to see all the terrible things my opponents said I did," he told hundreds crowded into a restaurant in Indianola. "Mitt Romney's not only attacking me. He's now attacked John McCain, he's attacked Rudy Giuliani, he's attacked everybody. He's not telling people why he ought to be president."
McCain, the Arizona senator, dismissed Romney's charges and called him "a phony."
"We have to respond and we will respond," he told NBC, adding that "we won't engage in that kind of campaigning, nor will we stoop to responding to a lot of it."
Whether any of this affects voters is uncertain.
"I think they're ridiculous," said Gerrit Branderhorst, a Republican retiree from Pella and a Huckabee supporter. "Why run somebody down so bad when it's really not true?"
Keith Ervin, a Republican car dealer in Vinton, Iowa, who's leaning toward
McCain, said: "I don't like the name-calling. I don't do it to my competitors and I don't like them to do it to me. I think it probably changed Romney from my first choice to my second."
Bonita Davis, a Democrat from Independence, agreed: "Whoever's got the most negative ads is going to lose my vote."
Romney barnstormed Saturday through four Iowa cities and found dozens of undecided voters at each stop. His message was upbeat and he took no questions.
Asked as he was leaving the Coffee House Hollander in Altoona if the negative ads were having much impact, he said, "Who knows?" Pressed, he again said, "Who knows?" and quickly walked away.
Throughout the state, voters said that while they were aware of the ads, they would not be a major factor as they made up their minds.
"What I care about is where people stand on foreign policy and the economy," said Joel Dunlop, an Ankeny college student.
"I hate those ads. I don't pay attention to 'em; I know what I'm doing when I go to vote," said Karen Veoss , a college official from Mt. Pleasant.
But more such ads are coming. In one, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, slams the health care plan of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, claiming it would prevent many adults from getting coverage because it lacks a government mandate. The Obama campaign said AFSCME spent more than $300,000 airing the ad.
But Democratic campaigns aren't airing their own attack ads, at least not yet; Obama told an audience Friday that he "resisted" advice that the only way he could beat Clinton was if he "does a Tonya Harding on her," a reference to the disgraced Olympic ice skater who attacked a rival.
Clinton also stayed on a high road Saturday, telling reporters in Eldridge that she had no plans to go negative. "I am staying on my positive message of change," she said.
Meanwhile, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards defended himself against another ad-related allegation. Rachel Mellon, widow of financier Paul Mellon, reportedly gave $495,000 to the Alliance for a New America, an independent group spending a reported $1.7 million on ads supporting Edwards in Iowa. The so-called "527" group is not subject to federal campaign limits.
Edwards said Saturday he had "absolutely no control" over the donation.
Obama's camp wasn't buying that.
"His campaign simply exploited the biggest loophole in the campaign finance system in order to get public matching funds, while arranging through allies to benefit from a 527," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
"That's how they avoided the spending limits that are a condition of the public matching funds," he said. Candidates can qualify for federal money if they meet certain requirements, but then must adhere to strict spending guidelines.
(Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer contributed.)