Huckabee makes apology

His comment in an interview disparaged Romney's Mormon faith

December 13, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- In the latest sign that religion is a searing topic in the Republican presidential contest, Mike Huckabee apologized personally to Mitt Romney yesterday for a published remark that disparaged his rival's Mormon faith.

Huckabee delivered the apology minutes after the final Republican debate before Iowa's kickoff caucuses. The incident comes at a crucial period in the campaign and, in particular, for Huckabee, whose recent surge has put him in a position to win Iowa three weeks from tonight.

During the debate, the former Arkansas governor avoided expected attacks from the other candidates, thanks to a format and moderator that strongly discouraged such exchanges. But he couldn't dodge fallout from his own comment in a magazine interview.

"Don't Mormons ... believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Huckabee asked "in an innocent voice," according to an article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Huckabee owes his emergence as the leading candidate in Iowa to strong support from evangelical Christians, who are expected to cast between 40 percent and 50 percent of the caucus vote. They have been drawn to the conservative social views of the ordained Baptist minister and to his open expressions of faith.

Many of these voters also question whether Mormonism is a religion or a cult, the topic Huckabee was asked to address during the magazine interview. He didn't answer the question directly, instead professing ignorance of Mormon beliefs.

Immediately after the debate, in which he wasn't questioned about the remark, Huckabee apologized to Romney. The timing of the apology suggested that he might have done so in the debate, had it come up.

"I said, `I would never try ... to somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it an issue,' and I wouldn't," Huckabee said in a postdebate interview on CNN from the debate site, a public television studio in the suburbs of Des Moines.

"I've stayed away from talking about Mitt Romney's faith," Huckabee said. "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.'"

After making those comments, Huckabee, who is usually accessible to journalists, strode from the room through a crowd of reporters, ignoring their questions.

Romney's campaign has acknowledged that many voters have suspicions about the former Massachusetts governor's religion. Last week, he gave a heavily promoted speech in which he sought to assure evangelical Christians that he shared many of their beliefs, while also saying that calling for him to discuss his views on doctrinal matters amounted to an unconstitutional religious test for elective office.

The debate sponsor, The Des Moines Register, had promoted its event in a front-page banner headline yesterday as having a potentially "seismic impact" on the race in Iowa. But the forum struck few sparks.

The newspaper's editor, Carolyn Washburn, who moderated the 90-minute session, opened it by ruling out questions about the war in Iraq and about illegal immigration, currently the hottest issue in the Republican contest, on the grounds that Iowa voters know where the candidates stand on those matters.

Nine candidates shared the stage. All are running far behind Huckabee and Romney in Iowa, according to the latest polls, and during the debate itself, with the moderator running interference, they avoided attempted attacks.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the most anti-immigration candidate, tried to ask Huckabee how he was "going to convince America that you have in fact changed your mind on immigration from when you were a governor? That's all I want to know."

The moderator did not give Huckabee a chance to reply. Neither did she press him on other questions about his record.

Another minor candidate, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, raised a question about Romney's possible connection, as a venture capitalist, to the purchase of an American defense contractor by a Chinese company. The moderator let the question drop.

She did press former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on the use of taxpayer funds to provide police protection for the woman who is now his third wife when they were having an extramarital affair. Giuliani said, as he had previously, that details of the police protection became known years ago, and that his administration had not tried to cover up records of the spending.

The candidates were questioned about education, global warming, health care and the federal budget. Aides to several candidates said that the debate probably changed few minds in a state where more than half of Republicans have said they could switch their allegiance to another candidate in the coming weeks.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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