DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) - In a move that surprised even members of his own staff, Mike Huckabee told reporters gathered to see the debut of an Iowa ad attacking his competitor Mitt Romney that he was pulling the spot before it
After making the announcement, the Republican presidential candidate still showed reporters the ad, which targeted the former Massachusetts governor's record on such issues as taxes, gun control, and abortion.
Romney has already run several Iowa television spots criticizing Huckabee on issues including state spending, immigration, and clemency.
Recent polls show the two neck-and-neck for the lead among registered Republicans in the state, which holds its caucuses Thursday.
At the news conference Monday, the former Arkansas governor said he created the spot to attack Romney because "conventional political wisdom is that when you're hit, and it's beginning to do damage, the smart play is to hit back. And frankly every bit of advice I was getting said that was exactly what we were supposed to do."
But he said that shortly before the press conference, he called his staff and told them he wanted it pulled.
"I just decided that's not the way we want to run it," the former pastor said. "It's never too late to do the right thing."
Huckabee acknowledged that he expected "cynicism" from those who believe that by showing the ad at the news conference he was still launching the attack. But Huckabee said if he had not shown the ad, he expected reporters would have asked to see it.
If the ad ends up airing on Iowa TV stations, it will be because the stations have not yet had a chance to replace it in their schedules, Huckabee said.
Des Moines station KCCI told CNN it had been told this morning to run the ad - then contacted shortly afterwards by the campaign to cancel the original order.
“There had been a discussion about the strategy, a very lively discussion,” a top aide to the Mike Huckabee campaign said after his surreal press conference this afternoon.
Charmaine Yoest told reporters that the debate about running a negative ad against top rival Mitt Romney was strongest “particularly within the [Huckabee] family.”
“The governor has never in his political career run a negative ad. So there was real tension here, and we do feel strongly that his record has been distorted and so the plan was to make sure the record was cleared up,” Yoest added.
Skeptical reporters questioned Yoest about when staffers were notified of the change in strategy and whether the campaign ever truly intended to air the ad, but she refused to give any details except for declaring, “I’ve got a box of dvds and we’re not going to pass them out.”
“At the end of the day the Governor’s the one who makes the decisions about how he wants to run the campaign,” Yoest said.
- CNN's Dana Bash, Chris Welch and Evan Glass contributed to this report