The gloves came off this weekend in the Republican contest for the presidential nomination as leading candidates began the last, frantic sprint towards the all-important Iowa caucuses on Thursday, trading increasingly poisonous barbs and negative attacks.
At the heart of the blizzard was Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who has poured resources into Iowa in an all-out attempt to win the state and establish himself as a front-runner as the state-by-state process of selecting the Republican nominee finally gets under way.
In recent days, Mr Romney, a Mormon, has found himself attacked from all sides for allegedly switching positions for political expediency on issues from abortion to immigration, and either inflating or fabricating episodes from his life to endear himself to sections of the electorate.
"Governor Romney is running a very desperate and, quite frankly, a very dishonest campaign," asserted one of his closest rivals, Mike Huckabee.
The abrupt change in tone risks alienating voters in Iowa, who have a reputation for recoiling from negative campaigning. It comes, however, as polls continue to show a wide- open race between the Republican hopefuls.
Iowa has become a battle royal between Messrs Romney and Huckabee. The latter, a Christian conservative and former Arkansas governor, has surged in polls in recent weeks. A second place for Mr Romney would also help the Arizona senator, John McCain, who has concentrated most of his efforts on winning the New Hampshire primary on 8 January.
It's "too close to call" in Iowa, the pollster John Zogby said yesterday on the release of a survey showing Mr Huckabee leading Mr Romney by 29 to 28 per cent. "There is a lot of potential for change here," he added. Senator McCain is a distant third, but is still competitive in the race for New Hampshire. The other main contender, Rudy Giuliani, has failed to gain traction in either state.
Dirty tricks appear to be behind a mailing of fake Christmas cards from Mr Romney to some voters in South Carolina, which has its primary on 19 January, that stressed his Mormon background. The card contained the line: "Paid For By The Boston Massachusetts Temple."
The Romney camp made clear that the cards had not come from their candidate.
A leading New Hampshire newspaper, the Concord Monitor, accused Mr Romney of being a "phoney" and his rivals took that as a cue to attack him, reminding voters, for example, of his claim that he is a keen hunter when he has no licence and has apparently hunted only twice in his life.
"If a person is dishonest in his approach to get the job, do you believe he will be honest in telling you the truth when he does get the job?" Mr Huckabee asked.
Mr Romney, meanwhile, released advertisements attacking Mr McCain on immigration policy and Mr Huckabee on fiscal policy.Reuse content