"I just realized that this is not how we run our campaign in this state," Huckabee said at a lunchtime press conference. "We've gotten here by being positive."
Later that night, Huckabee threw a little get-together in downtown Des Moines, pounding out the bass-line on "Hard Day's Night" with his buddy Chuck Norris out in the crowd. Around that time, a Washington Post reporter found the creator of that attack ad, Ed Rollins, alone in the hotel bar. Spokane remembers Rollins as the architect of George Nethercutt's 1994 win over then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley; he went to work for Huckabee in December. There he was, the salty old veteran of campaigns dating back to Ronald Reagan's in 1980, bemoaning what looked like a seismic change in the way campaigns are waged.
"You didn't have 100 reporters and 30 cameras sitting in a room because you're putting up a commercial," Rollins told the Post reporter at the lunchtime press conference. "They think they're here to see Ed Rollins coming back to drop to the knees and fire at the groin of Mitt Romney."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n New Year's Eve, it wasn't clear who was right. But after the delegates were counted on Jan. 3, Huckabee was proven right. (And it wasn't clear why Huckabee was still employing Rollins.)
And since his "clean" victory, the feeling has spread to New Hampshire, where John McCain said of attack ads: "I don't think they work. I'm running a positive campaign." And after Hillary Clinton's efforts at the Saturday night debate to bolster her position by questioning Barack Obama's credentials, her poll numbers dropped.
So while the mainstream press talks about the change embodied in Obama's race and age, the subtler -- but perhaps just as profound -- change may be that negative attack ads could be on the way out. And ironically enough, a Republican may have killed them.
That can't be good news for a guy like Rollins and his gun-for-the-groin mentality, but it's good news for American politics. We'll see if it lasts as the race plays out, but perhaps this year we won't get a replay of Karl Rove's tactics -- as in the Swift Boaters for Truth and the nasty calls made around South Carolina in 2000 that torpedoed McCain's chances eight years ago.
If you don't think the Rollins/Rove playbook was deeply entrenched in GOP circles, check out the latest tell-all book, How To Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, by Allen Raymond, who served three months in federal prison for tampering with the 2004 New Hampshire election. Some of the dirty tricks he talks about include calling supporters of your opponent during the Super Bowl and acting like you're with their campaign just to annoy them, and sending out phony press releases, then watching as the opponent has to deny the issue on TV. In Iowa, Raymond told ABC News he knew the oddly frequent use of the full name "Barack Hussein Obama" was no accident, and he was especially impressed with the fake calls to Iowa ministers, threatening them with IRS subpoenas.
Raymond says dirty tricks are alive and well in 2008: "Guys who practice this trade are hired to engineer a victory. This is not about morality -- this is about winning."
In the end, Huckabee decided American elections had better be about morality. Even Rollins couldn't help but be impressed, as he told the Post he said to Huckabee after the ad was pulled: "'Governor, this is what it means to be president. The president gets lots of advice and makes a lot of tough decisions... But you made the decision.'"
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & till, candidates have to spend all that campaign cash on something, and what seems to be taking the place of the attack ads, especially on the Republican side, are scare tactics. A quick review of the ads airing in New Hampshire is like a preview of Armageddon. Sirens, explosions, body bags -- that's what the Granite State is getting, especially from McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
I'm not sure that replacing "my-opponent-is-a-scumbag" ads with "vote-for-me-or-die" ads is great progress, but at least they're issue-based ads. And if Obama continues snowballing into November, it could set up a very clear hope vs. fear dynamic in the general election.
Which brings us back to Huckabee. Will his principled stand be good enough to put him through to November? Pundits are already predicting that gravity will pull him back down to earth. Maybe Rollins was right and he should have run that attack ad after all.
Huckabee realized he could win -- and only wanted to win -- without using the GOP's go-to playbook. And that's the kind of insight you don't get under the glare of the media's lights and or in the bustle of a crazy day. No, that's the kind of little voice in your head -- God's voice, Huckabee likely believes -- that comes to you in the quiet of a frigid morning jog.
"We often talk about changing the tone of politics," Huckabee said at that New Year's Eve press conference. "Sometimes we talk about it and then we end up doing the same things. Can we change the kind of politics and the level of discourse?"
Whatever happens to Mike Huckabee, it's worth remembering what could be his lasting contribution to this campaign and -- hopefully -- American politics.