12.31.2007

In unscripted moment, Huckabee confuses everyone and hypocritically renounces to go negative

In this constantly scripted campaign, Mike Huckabee just was caught in an uncontrolled and utterly confused moment. With most candidates in the spotlight for a year now, Huckabee burst unto center-stage a month ago only; many were already questioning whether he had peaked too soon and whether he was ready for primetime, and this is now likely to spark a new round of questioning about the state of the Huckabee campaign.

Let's recap: Romney has been running ad blasting Huckabee for three weeks now, and Huckabee's poll numbers have clearly gone south as a result. Huckabee had refrained from attacking back despite the golden rule to never let an attack go unanswered; and he took most of his Sunday off to shoot advertisements blasting Mitt Romney. That's right, he took off a Sunday 4 days before Election Day as all other candidates where out campaigning.

The ads which accused Romney of being "dishonest" were scheduled to run this morning, and were already sent to the TV stations. Huckabee had scheduled a press conference this afternoon to mark the start of this new strategy, and in front of the entire press corps, Huckabee reversed course (early reports are indicating he changed his mind mere minutes before the presser) and announced to the press that he would not run the negative ads and that a campaign had to remain positive. Until then perhaps this could have been a boost for Huckabee if the media had relayed his determination to stay positive and he had won points among the electorate.

But Huckabee then went on to say that he would still show the ad to the press: "I know that some of are up saying, well did you really have an ad? Well, I’m going to show you the ad. You’ll get the chance to find out." Could Huckabee's attempt to get the media to relay his message and say "this is what Hucakbee wanted to criticize Romney before deciding to go positive..." be any more clear? In other words, Huckabee was hoping to get the benefits of having launched a negative attack WHILE STILL getting credit for staying positive.

The entire press corps reportedly burst out laughing at Huckabee's audacity. Asked whether he was being hypocritical by showing the ad and clearly hoping that news broadcasts would show it for free, Huckabee answered that people could be cynical if they wanted to be (I certainly am) and that he was only showing it to prove that he had prepared the ad in the first place. (Since I have now denounced Huckabee's hypocrisy, I feel like I would not be playing his game by linking to the negative ad, so here's a bootleg version of the ad filmed by a Time reporter).

And yes, this move does seem way too transparent for any campaign to risk it; but don't forget that Huckabee apparently decided to shift gears only very shortly before the press conference which probably explains the impression of complete improvisation. Now the question, of course, is how the local media covers it. Do they go along Huckabee's plan? Or do they openly express skepticism?

FOX News (do watch this brutal report if you have a few minutes) and observers like the Politico's Jonathan Martin are clearly choosing the latter path. And the NYT's blog straight out says that it will not summarize the ad as that's exactly what Huckabee wants here. And Time's Joe Klein writes, "That sound you hear rumbling out of Des Moines appears to be a monumental implosion." But as Martin explains, what's most important is the way this will be covered by the local media: Will they describe the ad and praise Huck for not running it?

How do the local TV affilates here describe the move? What will the AP story that dozens of papers here pick up tomorrow read like? And what sort of presentation and play will The Des Moines Register give to what can only be described as a singular moment in an already topsy-turvy campaign? We'll know tonight from WHO, KCCI, and WOI and tomorrow in the Register, Quad City Times and Sioux City Journal whether the move worked or if his shtick finally became too cute by half.

What is the evidence in those local journals for now? The Sioux City Journal is going along exactly what Huckabee would want, explaining that Huckabee is staying positive and still describing the ad they saw. But the Des Moines Register is openly skeptical, and Radio Iowa is also employing a heavily sarcastic tone and not describing the ad.

Could Huckabee's improvisation work? If his numbers improve in the coming days, you could credit this move. But if he continues weakening and ends up losing a lead that 10 days ago seemed gigantic, this crazy and hypocritical decision will have to take some of the blame. My guess (and hope for the sake of political honesty) is that this is way too obvious to work. And reporters laughing at your press conference is never a good thing.

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