Des Moines, Iowa - In what is likely to be remembered as one of the more bizarre moments of this campaign season, embattled GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee renounced negative campaigning today by unveiling an attack ad to a ballroom full of reporters and dozens of TV cameras.
Standing before a banner reading "Enough is Enough" and flanked by five large charts attacking the record of rival Mitt Romney, a haggard-looking Huckabee said that the fight to win Thursday's Republican caucus had gotten "out of hand" and "out of control" and that he would refrain from any more negative campaigning.
Huckabee's unorthodox media event comes as a barrage of new polls has battered his lead in Iowa and put his campaign at risk of crash-and-burn. Some of those surveys now show Romney regaining a lead he had maintained over most of the year until Huckabee began to surge ahead in recent weeks.
"Conventional political wisdom is that you must counter-punch," the former Arkansas governor said. "When you get hit you should hit back. And every bit of advice I have been given says that is exactly what we should do." Huckabee explained that he, indeed, prepared and produced a TV spot attacking Romney, sent it to local TV stations but had just given the directive to pull it from airing. "This morning I ordered them to hold the ads," Huckabee said. "From now we will run only ads that say why I should be president not why Mitt Romney shouldn't be president."
Then, amid loud gasps and laughter from the more than 150 reporters on hand, Huckabee announced he would show the assembled press the same ad. As dozens of TV cameras whirred, and after two false starts, the 30-second spot assaulting Romney's record was shown in full. The tag line of the spot ended with the narrator saying of Romney: "If a man's dishonest trying to get the job, he'll be dishonest on the job"
The room then exploded into a cacophony of questioning from the press memorializing this event as a moment that might be remembered as campaign meltdown for Huckabee.
When asked if it was cynical to show an ad to dozens of TV cameras while saying the campaign had banned it from the air, Huckabee pleaded innocent of ill-motive. "If people want to be cynical about it, they'll be cynical about it," Huckabee said. He claimed that earlier this morning he had simply reached a "tipping point" and decided to make a sharp turn in his campaign away from negativity.
When pressed as to why the downtown hotel ballroom he was speaking in was festooned with charts attacking Romney's record, Huckabee said his staff only learned of his decision "a few minutes ago when I walked into this room" and, therefore, didn't have time to take down the negative material.
Huckabee's main rival Mitt Romney has blanketed the state in negative TV ads gnawing away at Huckabee's record on immigration, taxes and prisoner clemency. Huckabee's lead has further eroded as the candidate stumbled into several foreign policy gaffes in the wake of the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Huckabee conceded that Romney may now be the new front-runner just 72 hours before the first-in-the-nation caucuses. "In some polls he's overtaken me. He ought to be, he's outspending me 20 to 1," Huckabee said. "He ought to be ahead of me 4 to 1 in the polls."
But, he said, he was confident that his campaign could survive by withholding any further counter-punches. "Our core supporters are still committed to us," he said. "If they abandon us now because we are not gong to go negative, it would surprise me."
Huckabee was forced to abruptly end his press conference as the questioning of his motives by an amused press corps only seemed to build. He left the room in the Des Moines Marriott to do a drop-by visit of his campaign headquarters across the street. He was met there by a gaggle of Ron Paul supporters who surrounded the office and heckled the candidate for his support for the war in Iraq.