DES MOINES, Iowa - In the final days before the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee is feeling the heat. And not enjoying the experience.
The pressure is coming from his own verbal missteps, from heightened media scrutiny, and from a series of negative commercials and mailings, most of them launched by his principal Republican rival here, Mitt Romney.
Some polls indicate that Huckabee, who seemed comfortably ahead in Iowa a few weeks ago, has now lost his lead over Romney.
Yesterday, Huckabee took the extraordinary step of canceling his public campaign schedule, except for an appearance on NBC-TV's Meet the Press.
There were reports that the former Arkansas governor was using the time to produce a commercial that speaks to his new situation. He previewed the likely theme of such an ad during his televised interview yesterday, calling Romney's attacks "desperate and dishonest."
"If you aren't being honest in obtaining the job," Huckabee asked, "can we trust you to be honest if you get the job?"
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has described Huckabee as a big-spending, tax-raising former governor who was soft on crime and immigration and is shaky on foreign policy.
On Meet the Press, Huckabee was asked whether any of the charges were untrue. "How long do we have on the program?" he replied, before addressing them one by one.
On Saturday evening in the town of Perry, he devoted most of a 40-minute speech to bemoaning the attacks against him, responding to them, and blasting his rival.
"Soft on crime, he [Romney] says," Huckabee told about 100 listeners. "Tell that to the 16 people who were executed while I was governor, something neither he nor anyone else running for president had to do."
Romney, for his part, has ignored Huckabee's charges, keeping to positive themes in his own appearances. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, though, said that Huckabee's record "is tough to defend, so his testiness and irritability when being questioned about it is obvious," the Associated Press reported.
Huckabee has even started playing the time-honored expectations game, telling reporters he doesn't need to win Thursday night's caucuses, and calling his campaign "a growing national movement" that has yet to peak.
Given the ebb and flow of electoral politics, perhaps Huckabee was due for a rough patch.
For most of the year, he was considered a money-starved, second-tier candidate, not worthy of serious attention. But in August, he came in second to Romney in the Iowa Straw Poll. And in October, he dazzled social conservatives with his speech at the Values Voters Summit in Washington.
Suddenly, evangelical Christians, who make up at least 40 percent of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, coalesced behind Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, and rocketed him to the top of the Iowa polls.
It wasn't long before Romney, who had been alone at the top for months, came after him. In one Romney commercial, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted as describing Huckabee's understanding of foreign policy as "ludicrous."
In addition, the Club for Growth, a pro-business group based in Washington, is running ads that show Huckabee as governor telling the Arkansas legislature he would be happy with any kind of tax increase they might enact.
Then there are the missteps he has made talking about Pakistan in the days since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.
First, Huckabee indicated he did not know that President Pervez Musharraf had lifted martial law on Dec. 15. Next, he misused a statistic he had picked out of a newspaper story to argue that a good reason to build a wall along the Mexican border was to keep out the many Pakistanis trying to enter illegally.
When his error was pointed out - illegal immigrants from Pakistan, it turns out, are not numerous compared with those from many other countries - he said that his "point wasn't lost" and that he was trying to show Iowans the real impact of events halfway around the world.
So now, after months of taking pride in not going after his fellow Republicans, Huckabee has started blasting Romney, highlighting his rival's changed positions on several key issues.
"I believe in the sanctity of human life, and I've always believed in it," Huckabee said in Perry. "It's not something I started to believe in just because I decided to run for president. . . . I'm not a late bloomer when it comes to the convictions I have."
For his core supporters, his unqualified antiabortion stance and his comfort in talking about his faith are what truly matter.
Said Wanda Brooks, 57, of Perry: "I'm a Christian, and I believe he lives a Christian life as an example to others. . . . I have a strong church background, and he portrays the values that I have."
A month ago, when accepting the endorsement of the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Huckabee said that the only way to explain the surge of support for him was divine providence.
Now, the man who was the 44th governor of Arkansas is counting on something more tangible - the enthusiasm of his supporters - to produce a strong showing on caucus night.
"If you good folks do your duty on Thursday," he said in Perry, "I could well be on my way to becoming the 44th president of the United States."
See Larry Eichel's previous stories plus other election coverage and links at http:// go.philly.com/campaign2008