DES MOINES, Iowa — Mike Huckabee, a Republican relying on support from religious conservatives in Thursday's hard-fought Iowa presidential caucuses, on Sunday stood by a decade-old comment in which he said, "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."
In a television interview, the ordained Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor made no apologies for the 1998 comment made at a Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Salt Lake City.
"It was a speech made to a Christian gathering, and certainly that would be appropriate to be said to a gathering of Southern Baptists," Huckabee said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
He gave the speech the same year he endorsed the Baptist convention's statement of beliefs on marriage that "a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ." Huckabee and his wife, Janet, signed a full-page ad in USA Today in support of the statement with 129 other evangelical leaders.
The former governor, who rallied Christian evangelicals to make him a surprise force in Iowa, has put his faith front and center in his campaign. His stump speech sounds like a pastor's pitch from a pulpit. Campaign ads emphasize faith and call him a Christian leader. He frequently quotes Bible verses.
Pressure on faith issue
As his fortunes have improved, Huckabee has faced a drumbeat of questions and criticism about his gubernatorial record and the role of faith in his administration. He also has made some missteps while trying to fend off a challenge — and critical TV ads — from Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and Mormon whose faith unsettles some religious Christian conservatives.
Four days before the caucuses Thursday, a new poll found Huckabee's surge may have stalled; his once double-digit lead over Romney has evaporated. Private polling shows the two in a dead heat.
The Iowa precinct caucuses is the crucial first contest in the political parties' state-by-state process of selecting presidential nominees. Candidates who do well in the caucuses, and in the New Hampshire primary five days later, can gain momentum, establishing themselves as front-runners. Those who do poorly often decide to drop out of the race.
The television interview was Huckabee's only campaign appearance Sunday.
With the media throng following him having grown immensely, Huckabee scrapped a public event at a church in favor of attending a private service closed to reporters. Instead of courting voters, he hunkered down to film new TV ads, perhaps spots responding to Romney's barrage of critical commercials.
As recently as Friday, Huckabee insisted he wanted to run a positive campaign. He also reserved the right to respond aggressively.
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"Hopefully we'll just be talking about issues," Romney told reporters Sunday. In contrast to Huckabee, Romney had a full slate of events on a bus tour of eastern Iowa.
On abortion, atheists
In the NBC interview, Huckabee, a longtime opponent of legalized abortion, said he does not believe that women should be punished for undergoing the procedure, but that doctors might need to face sanctions.
"I don't know that you'd put him in prison, but there's something to me untoward about a person who has committed himself to healing people and to making people alive who would take money to take an innocent life and to make that life dead," Huckabee said.
He also argued that his emphasis on his Christian beliefs does not mean he's alienating atheists. He said, if elected, he would have no problem appointing atheists to government posts.
"The key issue of real faith is that it never can be forced on someone. And never would I want to use the government institutions to impose mine or anybody else's faith or to restrict," Huckabee said.
Those skeptical of the role of faith in his presidency, he said, should look at his record in Arkansas.
"I didn't ever propose a bill that we would remove the Capitol dome of Arkansas and replace it with a steeple," he said. "You know, we didn't do tent revivals on the grounds of the Capitol."
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