Heated? For sure. Intense? Of course.
Yet the Iowa caucus campaign nearly now coming to a close has been a surprisingly civilized affair, four years after caucus-goers appeared to punish two presidential hopefuls for playing too rough.
This time, the exception illustrates the rule.
"If I believed half of that stuff, I wouldn't vote for myself," Republican Mike Huckabee told reporters on Saturday.
The object of his unhappiness? An ad aired by the campaign of rival Mitt Romney that said he had "granted 1,033 pardons and commutations, including 12 convicted murderers ... more clemencies than the previous three governors combined."
Unable to challenge the facts marshaled by his rival's campaign, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, sought to deflect the criticism.
"I had 8,700 requests. I denied 90 percent of them," he said. "Some may not have turned out the way I hoped, but most did."
In fact, Romney's ad stood out not so much for its negativity, but for its very existence in a year in which both parties are experiencing wide-open races for the White House.
"There were lessons learned last time that no one wanted to repeat," said Steve McMahon, who worked for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the 2004 campaign and now is a Democratic strategist. "Namely that the attacker wasn't the beneficiary of the attack, and they turned out to be their own victim."
In the past, "the Democrats were always having a food fight on its way to a fist fight on its way to a knife fight," added Dennis Goldford, a professor at Drake University who has studied Iowa's caucuses for two decades.
This time, he said, "I think that while we had the occasional occurrence of something that seems like a personal attack, by and large it has been fairly civil."
Among Republicans, he singled out former Massachusetts governor Romney for his ads critical of Huckabee. "Huckabee is keying his whole campaign to religious conservatives who want to claim they bring a moral dimension to politics. It's tough to claim that you're the candidate of morality and principle and then slime them the next day," Goldford said.
Huckabee soared into the lead in pre-caucus Iowa polls on the strength of support from evangelical Christians. The most controversial commercial he has aired so far was a Christmas message featuring a backdrop that critics said resembled a religious cross.
"It's a bookcase, people," was his joking response.
If anything, the Democratic campaign in Iowa is far more unpredictable than the two-way Republican contest. Polls recently have made it a too-close-to-predict race among New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
Yet the Democratic candidates, too, have steered well clear of anything like even the Romney commercials, perhaps mindful of a nasty exchange in 2004 that backfired badly.
"We're in a multi-candidate field so if candidate A attacks candidate B, candidate C benefits. So nobody wants to get into a position where they are engaged in attacks that benefit another candidate," said a senior strategist with one of the three top Democratic contenders.
There is one large loophole to the politeness rule, though.
Obama's campaign has complained about being attacked by outside union groups partial to Clinton, while Huckabee has been battered by the Club for Growth, a conservative organization that appears partial to Romney.
For the Democratic candidates themselves, the decision to stay positive could change in an instant, particularly if one of the three finishes so badly in Iowa's precinct caucuses on Thursday that they are crippled heading into the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8.
"You may see somebody go negative next week in New Hampshire while the focus is on Iowa," said David Plouffe, who is Obama's campaign manager. "It's not going to be us," he pledged.
Among Republicans, Romney is airing a New Hampshire ad that criticizes McCain for his votes on tax cuts and immigration. McCain responded quickly with a commercial that used newspaper editorials to raise doubts about Romney.
But Iowa has been different.
Four years ago, Dean and Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader, attacked each another vigorously in the run-up to the caucuses. Voters promptly dispatched them to third and fourth place, crippling their campaigns. The Iowa winner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and second place finisher Edwards eventually went on to become the party's presidential ticket.
For sure, the rhetoric among Democrats has seemed sharper as the candidates begin to make their closing appeals to the voters. But even that has been relatively tame.
Obama's closing appeal relies in part on his suggestion _ unprovable _ that he, alone can defeat Republicans. "I beat them all," he told an audience in Burlington on Saturday. "John Edwards doesn't beat them all. Hillary Clinton doesn't beat them all."
Clinton's campaign drew ridicule earlier this winter when aides criticized Obama for having written a kindergarten essay saying he wanted to be president. They quickly abandoned that line of attack.
A second breach of the reigning political etiquette prompted Clinton to apologize personally to Obama. That occurred after her national co-chair, Bill Shaheen, said Democratic voters should be wary of nominating Obama because his teenage drug use could make it hard for him to win the presidency.
Now, with the campaign in its final weekend, former President Bill Clinton practically smothered his wife's rivals in a loving embrace before saying they pale in comparison with her.
"These people are smart, honest, good, they love their country. They've done their best to address the challenges of the day," he said.
"You just have to figure out who would be the best president. And I don't think it's close."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Espo has covered politics for the Associated Press since 1980.
Heated? For sure. Intense? Of course.