DES MOINES Mike Huckabee told me Sunday that Mitt Romney should apologize for saying "blatantly untrue" things about him.
Huckabee also said such an apology would be accepted only if Romney also admitted that he "has not been forthcoming" about his own record.
Both statements came in a phone interview, after I had asked Huckabee whether he thinks he was owed an apology for negative commercials Romney has been running about him.
Huckabee also struck back at Romney, criticizing him for claiming that his father had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., for allegedly saying Romney, himself, had marched with King, for Romney's assertion that he had once been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and for saying he was a "lifelong" hunter.
"I didn't draw first blood and say terrible things about Mitt," Huckabee said. "I'm not angry. This is politics; it is the way it works. But he not only wants to make up his record, but my record."
"This is not the way a man ought to become president," Huckabee went on. "Certainly not in our party."
Huckabee also said Romney should take down his negative TV ads because they were "dishonest."
Huckabee and Romney are locked in a tight race in Iowa, where voters will caucus on Thursday. Romney has been running television commercials saying that as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was not tough enough on crime, gave benefits to illegal immigrants and was a big spender.
"What Gov. Romney has said is off the charts in terms of being inaccurate and not just inaccurate, but being blatantly untrue," Huckabee said.
Huckabee also hinted that he might hit back at Romney with ads of his own. "We will have a final decision on that announced tomorrow," Huckabee said Sunday. "We reserve the right to respond in any way. I don't want to be viewed as going negative, but it is necessary to get the facts out."
Huckabee said that contrary to Romney's commercials, Huckabee had instituted stricter criminal sentencing in Arkansas, that Romney was using "bogus" numbers regarding Huckabee's fiscal record and that he had not granted special benefits to illegal immigrants, but only those required by law or to provide "seamless" educational opportunity.
Huckabee also said that although Romney claims not to have raised taxes in Massachusetts, he did raise a "a half-million dollars in fees."
"I believe I am still being positive," Huckabee said. "I am not being negative. I'm responding to dishonest attacks."
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told me Romney would not apologize to Huckabee and dismissed his comments as a sign of "testiness and irritability."
He said that Huckabee was indulging in "distortions and evasions" and that "Gov. Huckabee's reaction is emblematic of somebody whose record is not holding up under scrutiny."
As to Huckabee's specific criticisms of Romney, Madden said that Romney "did not have the official endorsement of the NRA when he ran for governor, but he had the support of the NRA and they did some electioneering on his behalf."
As to Romney saying his father marched with King, Madden said Romney "was obviously sharing a memory" and that Romney's father "may have marched with King, but not physically next to King."
Madden also said that though Romney may have been quoted in a 1978 article in what was then called the Boston Herald American as claiming he, himself, had marched with King, this either "was a misquote in 1978 or Gov. Romney misspoke in 1978."
As to Romney's assertion that he was a "lifelong" hunter, Madden said that "we all concede it was an imprecise way of saying he had hunted throughout his life."
Madden also said that although Romney had raised fees while governor, the increases were "on a number of user-based services such as highway billboards, underground storage tanks and boat-docking at state parks." Madden said the amount raised was about $250 million and not $500 million.
As for the Iowa caucus battle, Huckabee was upbeat.
"If we come in first or a close second in Iowa, it would make political history," he said. But he added that even if he came in third here, he could still go on to win the Republican nomination, based on the "real fervor of grass-roots supporters" that he has ignited.
He said he recognized that the New Hampshire primary, which follows the Iowa caucus by five days, will be a tough fight for him, because "there are three candidates in front of me that are better known in New Hampshire."
"Romney owns property there and vacations there; [John] McCain has had an organization there for eight or 12 years, and as to [Rudy] Giuliani, the New York media market overlaps [New Hampshire] to a certain degree," Huckabee said.
Huckabee said, however, that he was doing very well in polls in other states, including South Carolina and Michigan, and that he does not accept the notion that he cannot build a national organization in time to exploit a good showing in Iowa.
"Everything said about this campaign has proved to be wrong," Huckabee said. "Why should I believe the conventional wisdom now?"