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Huckabee apologizes to Romney

GOP debate is last one before caucuses

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JOHNSTON, Iowa - Iowa front-runner Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher, capped the last Republican debate here Wednesday by offering apologies to his chief rival, Mitt Romney, for questioning, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

Huckabee used the debate of Republican presidential contenders three weeks before the Iowa caucuses to acknowledge that his glib speaking style may become a thing of the past because everything "gets amplified to a new level."

But it was Huckabee's question about the relationship between the devil and Jesus Christ in an upcoming Sunday New York Times Magazine article that had observers talking and left Mormon leaders viewing the question as a religious insult.

"After the debate today, I went to Mitt Romney and apologized to him because I said I would never try -- ever -- to try and somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it an issue," Huckabee told reporters, describing Romney as "gracious" in responding to the apology.

Huckabee said he offered the question to the reporter during a conversation about Mormonism, not as a statement or a backhanded way of raising Romney's religion as a campaign issue.

"I asked the question because I had heard that, and I asked it not to create something," he said. "I never thought it would make the story."

Mormons believe Jesus was the only begotten son of God and consider him divine. But they also believe Satan was one of God's first spiritual children, that he rebelled and turned to evil, and was later disinherited.

'A lot less fireworks'

Indeed, the offstage activity was as compelling in many ways as the final debate among the Republican field before Iowa's leadoff caucuses on Jan. 3. The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and held at Iowa Public Television's studios.

Only three weeks remain before the caucuses, yet the debate lacked any sense of urgency or much intensity compared to a flurry of attack mail pieces and TV ads flowing through the state.

"It had a lot less fireworks than I anticipated," Huckabee said afterward.

While Huckabee vowed to heal the nation's sharp partisan divisions as a "first priority" for the next president, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, pledged to provide leadership for an optimistic future.

"The future is bright," Romney said as he frequently emphasized his business credentials. "We need leaders up in Washington that will rein in excessive spending. And we also need leadership that will help America grow."

Fred Thompson, the former "Law & Order" actor looking to Iowa to revitalize his campaign, contended that Romney's efforts to build credibility among conservatives have resulted in the former governor "getting to be a pretty good actor."

Thompson pledged an increase in military spending but was alone among the contenders in warning that Americans could face sacrifices in entitlement programs, such as Social Security, to ease the nation's fiscal problems.

Immigration barely noted

One of the biggest and most controversial issues in the GOP field -- illegal immigration -- was barely brought up.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, an outspoken foe of illegal immigration, made a late charge at Huckabee in asking whether the former Arkansas governor could "convince America" he had become tougher on the issue of undocumented immigrants. But Huckabee never responded to the question.

Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, countered questions about how open his presidency would be in light of a controversy regarding taxpayer-funded security during his tenure as mayor by arguing that his life has been an open book.

"I can't think of a public figure that's had a more transparent life than I have," he said.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona pledged to work for freer trade to benefit the export of Iowa products. But Rep. Duncan Hunter of California noted a pivotal Iowa agricultural product, ethanol, was "not the greatest thing in show business" and questioned whether more energy was needed to produce it than it provided.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said he would work for fairer trade policies and said the nearly 5-decade-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba should be lifted.

Asked about global warming, long-shot candidate Alan Keyes said, "I think the most important emission we need to control is the hot-air emission of politicians who pretend one thing and don't deliver."

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jchase@tribune.com

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