Under fire, Mike Huckabee countered mounting criticism from GOP presidential rivals Thursday by playing the woe-is-me card — and then hitting back by suggesting they lack substantial agendas of their own.
“Everything but the kitchen sink is being thrown at me,” the Republican leader in Iowa polls complained at nearly every stop. “If the only thing some of these candidates have to run on is what’s wrong with somebody else, they must not have much of a platform to talk about.”
The former Arkansas governor recently soared from behind the pack of GOP presidential candidates to overtake Mitt Romney in Iowa and now finds himself in an intense battle with the former Massachusetts governor. Fred Thompson, the one-time Tennessee senator trying to turn his soured fortunes around in Iowa, also has assailed Huckabee.
At one stop Thursday, Huckabee told an audience that the flood of “dishonest and desperate” criticisms were akin to candidates taking a hammer to his kneecaps. “It’s amazing I’m still walking,” Huckabee quipped to laughter.
With Iowa’s caucuses coming up on Jan. 3, the race is growing more heated each day. Polls show Huckabee ahead, but his advantage has narrowed over the past week as Romney has cast him as a liberal on taxes and started running TV ads claiming he’s soft on crime and immigration.
Huckabee lags his top opponents in money and manpower, and winning Iowa is crucial for him to continue his bid for the presidency. He used a four-day bus tour of the state this week to try to go on offense against Romney.
“If you want a president who gets elected because he attacks the other guy, I’m probably not going to be your choice,” he said.
Throughout the day, and without using Romney’s name, Huckabee tried to turn the tables on his chief rival as he defended himself against a Romney ad that criticizes him in connection with an Arkansas law on sentences for methamphetamine dealers and for his 1,033 pardons and commutations as governor.
Huckabee questioned Romney’s record of refusing any pardons and commutations. “The real issue is one of judgment,” he told reporters in Dike, adding that people “want a president who makes his decisions based on what’s good for the people he’s served, not what’s good for his own political future.”
He also said Romney was misinterpreting his methamphetamine record and argued that sentencing laws for meth dealers in Arkansas are “more than twice as harsh as they were in his state.”
Before five friendly audiences, he repeatedly raised both issues as he lamented “negative TV ads and poison mail pieces.”
“I’ve been attacked pretty brutally recently, in part because I had the audacity to say that I really do believe that we are one nation under God,” Huckabee said at a midday event. He was referring to flak he’s taken from independent groups — not candidates — for running an ad invoking the birth of Christ.
Huckabee also sought to lower expectations for his own performance — and ramp them up for Romney’s.
“He ought to win, given the money,” Huckabee said several times, claiming Romney has outspent him 20 to 1. “If we win, it will be a miracle.”
Huckabee emphasized he wanted to run a positive campaign but when pressed by reporters he did not rule out running negative ads, saying he reserves the right to aggressively respond to attacks.
Although he often highlights his intention to stay positive, Huckabee frequently takes not-so-veiled shots at his rivals in his standard campaign speech. He usually doesn’t name them. Sometimes he will go as far as referring to “my opponents” or “other people running for president.”
As he talked of coming from a family of modest means, Huckabee said: “I didn’t grow up with a last name or a Rolodex to open a lot of doors. … I didn’t go to an Ivy League school.”
Romney is the son of a former Michigan governor, one-time presidential candidate and chief executive of a car company. He has two graduate degrees from Harvard and made millions of dollars as a venture capitalist.
At other points, Huckabee appeared to poke at Romney’s chief vulnerability — his reversal on abortion rights and his shifts to the right on other issues.
“Some people are going to tell you everything and anything based on what they think you want to hear just so you’ll vote for them — and that’s not leadership,” he said, assuring his audience that his positions are “what I truly believe from the depths of my heart.”