Mike Huckabee refused to apologise on Sunday for putting Christianity at the heart of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, as the former Arkansas governor battled to maintain his surge in the polls ahead of next week’s Iowa caucuses.
The former Baptist preacher has been accused of blurring the lines between religion and politics by making overt appeals to evangelical voters and filling his campaign commercials with Christian imagery.
Support from Christian conservatives has helped propel Mr Huckabee to the front of the field in Iowa, where 40 per cent of likely Republican caucus-goers consider themselves evangelical.
His latest television advertisement shows him sitting in front of a Christmas tree and what appears to be an illuminated crucifix as he talks about the birth of Christ. On closer inspection, the cross turns out to be light reflecting off a bookshelf and the Huckabee campaign insists the image was unintentional.
However, the commercial has stirred debate about the growing prominence of religion in US politics, which some critics view as a threat to the separation of church and state.
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, Mr Huckabee insisted he would be “president of all America”, not just of Christian America.
But addressing worshippers in Texas earlier, he said it was absurd to be criticised for talking about Jesus at Christmas. “You can find Santa at every mall,” he said. “But if you mention the name of Jesus, as I found out recently, it upsets the whole world. Forgive me, but I thought that was the point of the whole day.”
Mr Huckabee’s emergence has come largely at the expense of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, whose Mormon faith is viewed with suspicion by many Christians.
Critics have accused Mr Huckabee of exploiting misgivings about Mormonism by portraying himself as the most authentic “Christian leader” in the race.
Mr Romney led in Iowa for most of this year, having spent millions in the state, only to be overtaken several weeks ago by Mr Huckabee, who has spent just a fraction of his rival’s amount.
The Huckabee surge has exposed divisions between Christian conservatives and the Republican elite, which is alarmed by his populist economic message and dubious about his chances of winning the presidency.
Mr Romney, who co-founded Bain Capital, the private equity company, has sought to label his rival as a closet liberal by focusing attention on his mixed record on tax-cutting and fiscal conservatism in Arkansas.
In New Hampshire, which votes on January 8, Mr Romney heads the Republican field but faces a stiff challenge from John McCain, senator for Arizona. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, meanwhile, is battling to protect his narrowing lead in national polls.
Hillary Clinton remains the national Democratic frontrunner but is locked in a dead-heat with Barack Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire. John Edwards also still in contention.