By Susan Milligan and Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
DES MOINES -- Mike Huckabee, seeking to counter attack ads by chief rival Mitt Romney, readied his own negative ad against the former Massachusetts governor today, then pulled it just hours before it was set to air on Iowa television stations.
But he still showed it to the assembled press corps.
Huckabee said he had planned to run an ad accusing Romney of raising taxes, failing to OK a single execution of a death-row inmate, and signing a healthcare plan that subsidizes the cost of elective abortions.
But just two hours before the campaign planned to unveil the TV spot, Huckabee said he had a change of heart, and pulled the plug.
"At some point, we have to decide -- are we changing the policy and the level of discussion'' in the campaign, Huckabee said. "It's got to start somewhere. It might as well start here, and it might as well start with me.''
Asked if he risked losing more ground to Romney by failing to fight back, Huckabee said, "If you gain the whole world and lose your soul, what does it profit you? Whether I live with you guys a week from now is immaterial to me,'' the former Arkansas governor told a packed room of reporters. But "I've got to live with me.''
Standing in front of a backdrop that declared "Enough is Enough," Huckabee then showed the ad, allowing him to gain some publicity for a spot that cost $30,000 to produce without having to pay for it to be on the air. Vastly out-funded by Romney, Huckabee has been trying to get his message out through free media coverage, and his news conference yesterday accomplished that.
But Huckabee denied he was trying to have it both ways. "If I didn't show it to you, you'd come up to me and say, 'You really don't have an ad,' " Huckabee said.
The aborted ad slams Romney for misrepresenting his own record on fiscal and social policy, then concludes, "If a man's dishonest to obtain a job, he'll be dishonest on the job,'' a comment that echoes Huckabee's recent remarks to Iowa voters.
The Romney campaign said Huckabee's "odd'' decision showed he "has turned from nice to very hot-tempered now that his record has been examined by voters.''
"To say one thing one minute and then turn around and show an attack ad to reporters the next will, obviously, leave folks with a very cynical view of Mike Huckabee and his message,'' Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.