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Romney's Iowa Strategy May Work, But Not In New Hampshire

I'll be spending most of today with Romney and Huckabee--and I promise I'll be posting from the road. In the meantime, just a thought about where things stand with them in Iowa. According to the latest poll, which is consistent with the broader trend line, Huckabee is still up 7 points on Romney here. My gut tells me that Romney is still very much alive, though--I think the odds of his winning may even be slightly higher than Huck's at this point.

Here's why: Romney has spent the last few weeks absolutely pounding Huckabee on the air, on the stump, in mailings, in e-mails. (See my piece in this week's issue for a bit more on that.) The conventional wisdom is that this is incredibly risky, because Iowans punish negativity. I think that's only half-right. It's risky, but not because Iowans necessarily punish negativity. It's risky because, as with Dean-Gephardt in 2004, the guy you attack often turns around and attacks you right back. You drive his support down, he drives yours down, and you end up back where you started, except both of you are now vulnerable to some third candidate.

The thing is, Huckabee isn't counter-attacking. He did finally go up with two ads last night, but both of them are pretty positive--they decry negativity but don't actually take after Romney in any specific way. So Romney's in the process of driving down Huckabee's support, and Huckabee isn't reciprocating. Now, Huckabee may turn out to be a completely unprecedented figure--someone so beloved by his supporters that the usual rules of politics don't apply. (I don't think he'll suffer as much as you'd expect for his recent foreign-policy gaffes, for example.) But I'm really skeptical that someone can defy gravity for so long.

On a related subject, I'm not entirely sure why Romney went after McCain so hard in New Hampshire. (Okay, I see why he did it--McCain was obviously gaining--I just don't think it was very smart.) As just noted, attack ads are risky because they provoke your opponent into counter-attacking. McCain has now apparently done that, in what Mark Halperin breathlessly labels the "[f]irst negative ad against Romney by any candidate, first negative ad by McCain, first negative ad by any candidate besides Romney."

I think the risks for Romney outweigh the potential benefits. They way things stood, Romney was going to win New Hampshire if he won Iowa. Conversely, if Romney lost Iowa, he was going to have a tough time holding off McCain with or without the negative ads. (People in New Hampshire are pretty familiar with McCain by now.) The only thing attacking McCain accompishes is to risk a brutal back-and-forth that could end up costing Romney the state even if he wins Iowa--or, failing that, damaging him heading into the rest of the primaries. Doesn't seem worth it to me.

Update: This piece in today's WaPo says Huckabee is ready to go negative on Romney in Iowa if/when it should be come necessary. Problem is, often you don't know it's necessary till it's too late...

"We don't see an erosion yet," Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who recently joined Huckabee's campaign, said in a telephone interview. "But you hope over the course of the next few days they don't start eroding our base."

Huckabee pointed out that he is the target of attack ads from both Romney and outside groups, but Rollins said the campaign had not anticipated that Romney would unleash a new attack on Friday. He added that Huckabee is determined to remain on a positive track but warned that the campaign will reevaluate that position on Monday.

"If we think we're starting to bleed, we've got a book of stuff on him," Rollins said of Romney. "We'll have to do it in person. Either Mike does it or I do it, but it doesn't have the impact of television. If we're really bleeding on Monday, we reserve the right to go back and defend ourselves."

Not entirely sure what that last quote means--I assume negative ads, but who knows? Also, regarding that point about McCain and Romney in New Hampshire, it sounds like Romney was actually surprised that McCain hit back. Here's the Post:

Romney, however, was clearly miffed by the response ad McCain put up in New Hampshire on Friday. The ad quotes the Concord Monitor describing Romney as a "phony" and follows a Romney ad attacking McCain on taxes and immigration. Arguing that his ad was a comparison of the two candidates' records, Romney called McCain's ad a personal attack. 

"It's nasty. It's mean-spirited," he told reporters on his campaign bus. "Frankly, it tells you more about Senator McCain than it does about me, that he'd run an ad like that."


--Noam Scheiber