COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Mitt Romney, battling to stop Mike Huckabee's surge in the nation's first voting state, has unleashed a television and mail attack on the former Arkansas governor.
On the eve of the last scheduled Republican presidential candidates' debate before Iowa's caucuses Jan. 3, Romney launched a 30-second television ad Tuesday in Iowa blasting Huckabee's record on immigration.
Huckabee fought back gently but firmly, likening the former Massachusetts governor to an elementary school tattler.
"We didn't like it when we were in the third grade," Huckabee told a news conference in this western Iowa city. "We don't like it now. Usually the tattler is not the most popular kid in the classroom."
Huckabee defended his immigration stance by welcoming the support of James Gilchrist, the controversial founder of the Minuteman Project, a citizens group that tries to monitor U.S. borders to prevent illegal immigration.
Gilchrist and Huckabee were told that some view the Minutemen as an angry band of self-appointed vigilantes.
"I'm not angry at anyone," Huckabee replied. "I'm angry at the government. I'm not angry immigrants want to come here."
Huckabee and Romney will be face to face Wednesday when they and other Republican candidates meet in the Des Moines Register debate. Huckabee, who opened a 12-point lead over Romney in last week's McClatchy-MSNBC poll of Iowa, has become the favorite target of his Republican opponents.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson charged Tuesday that Huckabee had changed his position on the Cuba trade embargo "after it became politically inconvenient."
Florida holds a primary Jan. 29, and Thompson clearly was eyeing the state's politically active Cuban-American community. He toured Miami's "Little Havana" on Monday. He criticized Huckabee on the embargo in a statement released Tuesday.
Huckabee opposed the Cuba trade embargo in 2002, saying it was hurting Arkansas' agricultural interests. Earlier this week, he said he favored the embargo, saying that as president he had to think about the entire nation's interests.
As for Romney, who led Iowa polls until recently, analysts said he was taking a big but necessary gamble by sharpening his criticism.
"Romney really doesn't have much choice. The question is, will he come across as mean?" said Tobe Berkovitz, the interim dean of communication at Boston University.
The Romney ad is carefully scripted to make him appear as though he's not attacking Huckabee personally, but simply pointing out issue differences. That's an important distinction, said John G. Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.
"The public often thinks of negative advertising as a personal attack," he said. "But people think it's fair game to attack on issues."
The Romney ad begins with an announcer pointing out how the two men are "two former governors, two good family men. Both pro-life; both support a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage."
It quickly points out a difference, though, by noting that Romney as governor vetoed legislation to provide in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, whereas Huckabee backed the idea of making the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas eligible for aid.
And, the ad says, Romney opposed driver's licenses for illegal aliens, while "Huckabee even supported taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens."
Huckabee supported allowing illegal immigrants who graduated from Arkansas high schools to qualify for merit-based state-funded college scholarships.
Last week, a Romney mailing to Iowa residents was more direct. It branded Huckabee as favoring "special benefits for illegals," and declared in a big red box that the candidate "supports de facto amnesty."
Huckabee didn't deny any of the assertions at his news conference Tuesday, and called his plan to curb illegal immigration "humane and compassionate." Gilchrist agreed, saying "it was a plan I myself could have easily written."
Huckabee said that attacks such as Romney's are "usually a sign of desperation on the part of an opponent who feels that his only way of winning is to attack and destroy."
Huckabee has been boosted in Iowa by evangelical Christians, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the caucus vote. The McClatchy-MSNBC poll last week found that he led Romney among those voters 42 to 8 percent.
Romney tried last week to defuse some of the momentum with a speech explaining his Mormon faith and beliefs, but it apparently didn't give him much of a boost.
Forcing Huckabee to defend his record, though, has potential. Noted Geer, "How Huckabee responds to this ad and other attacks will tell you what kind of candidate he is."
(Lightman reported from Washington.)