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Controversy dwarfs debate

Times Staff Writers

Mike Huckabee apologized to Mitt Romney on Wednesday for raising questions about the Mormon faith, again pushing religion to the fore of an increasingly bitter fight for the Republican presidential nomination.

The controversy, which overshadowed a GOP debate here, came less than a week after Romney, who had been leading in Iowa polls, delivered a speech aimed at overcoming any political impediment posed by his membership in the Mormon church.

And it was the latest instance of the newly ascendant Huckabee having to explain his statements now that he is facing closer scrutiny.

The fracas stemmed from comments Huckabee made in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, set to appear this weekend. The former Arkansas governor -- an ordained Southern Baptist minister -- was asked if he considered Mormonism to be a “cult or religion.”

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“I think it’s a religion. I really don’t know much about it,” Huckabee replied. Then he posed a question of his own: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

A church spokesman refuted the notion, as did Romney.

The former governor of Massachusetts said there was nothing wrong with a candidate drawing contrasts on issues, “but I think attacking someone’s religion is really going too far,” Romney said on NBC’s “Today Show.” “It’s just not the American way, and I think people will reject that.”

The matter did not come up during Wednesday’s debate. But afterward, Huckabee said he privately apologized to Romney.

“I said I would never try, ever, to try to somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it, you know, an issue, and I wouldn’t,” Huckabee said on CNN. “I told him face to face, I said, ‘I don’t think your being a Mormon ought to make you more or less qualified for being a president.’ That has been my position.”

Some, however, think Huckabee’s comment was not as innocent as he suggested, especially after he ran a TV ad in Iowa in which he discussed faith and the words “Christian Leader” flashed across the screen.

His surge in the polls -- he is now leading in some Iowa surveys -- has stemmed from strong support among evangelical Christians, many of whom view the Mormon faith with a mix of suspicion and hostility.

“It’s how you raise doubts about somebody without looking like you’re cheap and untoward,” Quin Monson, an expert on religion and politics at Brigham Young University, said of Huckabee’s comment. “You’d be able to dismiss it if he weren’t sending subtle cues in other ways, like in his advertising.”

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Huckabee strategists deny his TV spot was a jab at Romney.

Still, the latest back-and-forth overshadowed Wednesday’s debate, the last time the GOP contenders were to share a stage before Iowa begins the presidential balloting Jan. 3. Democrats will hold their final pre-caucus debate today.

The GOP session was the first since Huckabee’s surge, and many campaign-watchers were expecting a contentious affair. Instead, the debate was by far the most sedate of the 12 the Republicans have held. And the only criticisms of Huckabee were mild, delivered in passing or with a smile.

Huckabee set off brief flurry when he said education was not a federal issue, and then described himself as “a passionate, ardent supporter of having music and art in every school for every student at every grade level.”

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“That’s not the job of a president,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. “It is the job of a governor. That’s what you should run for if you want to dictate curriculum.”

Huckabee replied with a defense of his performance in Arkansas, saying he had “the most . . . impressive” education record of anyone on stage. That prompted a smiling rejoinder from Romney.

“I just wanted a small adjustment to what Gov. Huckabee had to say. . . . I don’t believe you had the finest record of any governor in America on education,” said Romney, drawing laughs from the audience in the Iowa Public Television studio.

Other jabs were similarly glancing and good-humored.

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Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee responded to a question on taxes by cracking a joke about Romney’s vast wealth. “My goal is to get into Mitt Romney’s situation, where I don’t have to worry about taxes anymore,” Thompson said.

As Romney tried to be heard over laughter from the audience, Thompson, a former film and television actor, alluded to suggestions Romney has switched positions for political expediency. “You know, you’re getting to be a pretty good actor, actually,” Thompson said.

In a more serious vein, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was thrown on the defensive by a question about city accounting maneuvers that obscured expenses for the police security detail provided his then-girlfriend and now wife, Judith Nathan.

“All that information was available and known to people,” Giuliani said, adding later, “I think I’ve had both an open, transparent government and open, transparent life.”

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In fact, the mayor was widely criticized -- even by allies -- for unprecedented secrecy during his administration. Newspapers had to sue to get city records that previously were routinely available. Other public officials with oversight responsibilities were forced to go to court to secure records related to their jobs.

For the most part, however, the candidates agreed -- on the desirability of tax cuts, a strong defense and an optimistic voice rallying Americans from the White House -- far more often than they disagreed.

The major exception, once more, was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who set himself apart by renewing his call for an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq and advocating a drastic cutback in U.S. engagement abroad. Asked what sacrifices might be necessary to reduce the national debt, Paul responded, “We cut by looking at our foreign policy. We maintain an empire which we can’t afford. We have 700 bases overseas. We are in 130 countries. We cut there.”

Some of the sharpest exchanges were between frustrated candidates and the moderator, Des Moines Register Editor Carolyn Washburn, who said one of the hottest issues in the race -- immigration -- was not a topic for discussion and often cut off answers to keep within her prescribed time limits.

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At one point Thompson refused when candidates were asked to raise their hands to say whether they believed global climate change was a serious threat caused by human activity.

“You want to give me a minute to answer that?” Thompson asked.

“No, I don’t,” Washburn replied.

“Well, then I’m not going to answer it,” Thompson said, drawing laughter and scattered applause from the studio audience.

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At the end of the debate, when the candidates were asked to offer New Year’s resolutions, Huckabee drew more laughs by referring to his sudden rise to the top-tier of GOP contenders.

“I’m going to be a lot more careful about everything I say, because I find that it gets amplified to a new level,” said Huckabee, who has faced criticism for past statements on AIDS and U.S. policy toward Cuba. “So that’s my resolution.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Barabak reported from Iowa and Finnegan from Washington. Times staff writer Joe Mathews in Washington contributed to this report.


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