Huckabee Leads Ahead of GOP's Last Iowa Debate

Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

Republican presidential candidates former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (left) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speak during the Univision Republican forum in Miami, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates assemble for their latest debate in Iowa on Wednesday, their last chance to spar face-to-face before the Iowa caucuses three weeks from now.

In some Iowa polls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has taken the lead from frontrunner Mitt Romney, setting the stage for possible fireworks between the two on the debate stage.

On Tuesday, snow and freezing rain forced Huckabee to cancel his campaign events in Iowa. But the mood at his campaign headquarters was cheerful. The candidate's sudden rise in the polls has heartened state campaign manager Eric Woolson.

"As a result of the poll numbers being up, fundraising is up," he said. "The number of volunteers is up ... It all goes hand in hand. I've never really seen a candidate catch fire like this."

Huckabee has doubled the size of his storefront office in Des Moines, and now has 14 staffers on the payroll in the state. However, he still trails Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in resources devoted to Iowa. But Tamara Scott, who directs the conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America, said Huckabee has gone from underdog to overachiever.

"He built that momentum on sheer energy," she said. "He didn't have money when we compare him to what the top-runner Mitt Romney was able to do. He didn't have organization. One can only assume it's his message."

Huckabee's message is especially attractive to conservative Christians. A new McClatchy-MSNBC poll finds his strongest support comes from weekly churchgoers, evangelicals and anti-abortion voters. President Kim Lehman of the Iowa Right to Life Committee said churchgoers have been unusually energized this year. They're worried about Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, who favors abortion rights, and by an Iowa judge's ruling last summer in favor of same-sex marriage.

"Pastors are rising up ... That may be where Huckabee is winning so many people. These churches are communicating, home school groups are communicating, and people are making their choices," Lehman said.

With many of those social conservatives appearing to choose Huckabee, Romney is feeling the heat. On Tuesday, he began running a new television ad in Iowa that takes aim at Huckabee on another hot-button issue: illegal immigration.

"Two former governors. Two good family men. Both pro-life. Both support a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage. The difference? Mitt Romney stood up and vetoed in-state tuition for illegal aliens," the ad says.

Romney and Huckabee have tangled over immigration in the past and may do so again during Wednesday's debate.

Huckabee, who has shown compassion toward illegal immigrants in the past, is now polishing his "get tough" credentials. He won the endorsement Tuesday of Jim Gilchrist, who founded the anti-illegal-immigrant Minuteman Project. And he recently unveiled a new policy proposal that would require all undocumented workers to leave the country within four months.

Huckabee's proposal would also crack down on employers, noting that jobs are the chief draw for most illegal immigrants. Last week, Romney fired the landscaping company that cuts the grass at his house in Massachusetts after The Boston Globe prepared to report for the second time that the company employs illegal workers.

Shaking hands and posing for pictures in a Des Moines shopping mall on Tuesday, Romney didn't want to talk about his tit-for-tat with Huckabee. Instead, he chatted briefly with some Blue Cross workers about universal health care coverage, and almost led a parade of TV cameras into a beauty salon, before his wife, Ann, intervened.

"That's the last place I'd want to have a camera watching me is when I'm getting my hair done," she said.

On Wednesday, the cameras will be focused on Romney and Huckabee.

"It's a real battle out there," Romney told a pair of supporters Tuesday. "But an important one."

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