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Over the next few minutes, we'll be hearing about the Republican race in Iowa. The candidates get their last chance today to come to face-to-face before Iowans actually vote in their caucuses.
In one major turn, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee now has taken the lead in some Iowa polls, beating out long-time frontrunner Mitt Romney. That could produce some sparks in today's debate, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Snow and freezing rain forced Mike Huckabee to cancel his campaign events in Iowa yesterday, but the mood at Huckabee headquarters was bright and cheerful. Huckabee is in first place in Iowa polls, and state campaign manager Eric Woolson says it feels good.
Mr. ERIC WOOLSON (State Campaign Manager): It does feel like a sunny day here every day because the poll numbers have been up. And as a result of the poll numbers being up, fundraising is up. The number of volunteers are up, the interest here, and it all goes hand in hand, and I've never really seen a candidate really catch fire like this.
HORSLEY: Huckabee has doubled the size of his storefront office in Des Moines and now has 14 staffers on the payroll in the state. He still trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in resources devoted to Iowa. But Tamara Scott, who directs a conservative Christian group in the state called Concerned Women for America, says Huckabee has gone from underdog to overachiever.
Ms. TAMARA SCOTT (Concerned Women for America): He built that momentum on sheer energy. He didn't have money when we compare him to what the top runner Mitt Romney was able to do and what he spent. He didn't have organization when we compare him to some of the other candidates. One can only assume it's his message.
HORSLEY: 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 says churchgoers have been unusually energized this year. They're worried about a Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani, who favors abortion rights, and about same sex marriage, which an Iowa judge ruled in favor of over the summer.
Ms. KIM LEHMAN (Iowa Right to Life Committee): Pastors are rising up, and it's a great opportunity because they meet once week. And I think that might be where Huckabee is winning so many people, is because these churches are communicating, the homeschool groups are communicating, and people are making their choices.
HORSLEY: Then with many of those social conservatives appearing to choose Huckabee, Romney is feeling the heat.
Yesterday, Romney began running a new TV ad in Iowa that takes aim at Huckabee on another hot button issue, illegal immigration.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: 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. Mike Huckabee supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. On immigration the choice matters.
HORSLEY: Romney and Huckabee have tangled over illegal immigration in past debates, and may do so again today. Huckabee, who has shown compassion towards illegal immigrants in the past, is now polishing his get-tough credentials. He won the endorsement yesterday of Jim Gilchrist, who founded the anti-illegal immigrant Minuteman Project. Huckabee also recently unveiled a new policy proposal that would require all undocumented workers to leave the country within four months. The 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 a report for the second time that the company employs illegal workers.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Hi there. How are you? I'm Mitt Romney. Nice to meet you. Thank you. My wife, Ann.
HORSLEY: Shaking hands and posing for pictures in a Des Moines shopping mall yesterday, 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.
Ms. ANN ROMNEY: That's the last place I don't want to have a camera watching me is when I'm getting my hair done.
HORSLEY: Today, the cameras will be focused on Romney and Huckabee. It's a real battle out there, Romney told a pair of supporters yesterday, but an important one.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Des Moines.
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