The sniping is heating up between Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee as the gap between them in the polls closes in Iowa.
The flashpoint is illegal immigration. Campaigning Tuesday in Iowa, Romney criticized Huckabee, along with rival Rudy Giuliani, on the issue, contending that Huckabee fought for tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants while governor of Arkansas. "Giving a better deal to the children of illegal aliens than we give to US citizens from surrounding states is simply not fair and not right," Romney told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
Huckabee has explained that the bill in question provided merit scholarships to children of illegal immigrants, provided they were applying for citizenship, and has argued that barring those children would penalize them for their parents' misdeeds.
On Fox News Channel's "America's Newsroom" today, Huckabee was more pointed in his response to Romney: "I guess Mitt Romney would rather keep people out of college so they can keep working on his lawn, since he had illegals there."
That refers to a Globe report last December that the landscaping service working on Romney's lawn in Belmont employed several illegal immigrants. Romney has said his family checked that the employer was legal, but didn't know the immigration status of the workers. He has also said that the episode has not changed his tough views on illegal immigration.
In TV ads and on the stump, Romney says that as Massachusetts governor, he opposed in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and boasts that he authorized State Police to enforce federal immigration law, though that order was rescinded by his successor Deval Patrick before it took effect.
Huckabee is now in second place in Iowa, within striking distance of Romney, according to new New York Times/CBS News Poll published today. It shows Romney with support from 27 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers on Jan. 3, Huckabee with 21 percent, and Giuliani with 15 percent.
Huckabee says he expects more slings and arrows as he moves up in the polls.
"The fact that I am being attacked is a good sign," he said today on Fox News. "It's a sign of life. This is hunting season. I'm a hunter. You don't ever point your gun at a dead carcass. A lot of folks are pointing at me."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Romney also said he expected the Iowa race to tighten and toughen. "My guess is they're going to be shooting rockets off in my direction," he said. "It's going to get very narrow. I'm going to be facing stiff competition from one or more of the candidates."