JOHNSTON, Iowa – 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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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.”
“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.
The matter did not arise during Wednesday’s debate. But afterward, Huckabee said he privately apologized to Romney.
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 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.”
“That’s not the job of a president,” responded 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.