Former Massachusetts governor takes aim at GOP front-runner

COLUMBIA — Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's surge in some recent South Carolina presidential primary polls has the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney scrambling to take him down a notch.

A CNN poll out Friday showed Huckabee with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican voters in South Carolina. The former Arkansas governor was trailed by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 17 percent and Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at 16 percent each.

The telephone poll by Opinion Research Corp. of 555 likely Republican primary voters was taken Dec. 9-12 and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points. When the same poll was conducted in July, Huckabee had just 3 percent of support from registered Republican voters.

The survey was released as Romney's campaign assembled three current and former Arkansas legislators to criticize Huckabee's record as governor.

Former Arkansas House Minority Leader Jim Hendren, a Romney supporter, said Republicans made a lot of sacrifices under Huckabee and that the then-governor pushed tax increases on nursing home beds, sales, gasoline and the Internet.

"To our surprise, it wasn't the Democrats that were bringing 'em. It was many times the Republican governor and certainly supported by him with liberal Democrats in the lead," Hendren said.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson, also a Romney supporter, opposed Huckabee's push for college scholarships and loans for children of illegal immigrants while on the Arkansas student loan board.

"I want a president who is concerned about others. But I don't want him to solve problems in a manner that he creates more problems and he creates more victims," Hutchinson said.

Mike Campbell, who is running Huckabee's South Carolina campaign, said Romney's camp is simply trying to snag some attention before voters turn to the Christmas holiday and tune out the latest polls.

"They are definitely feeling the heat from this," Campbell said. "They've got to do what they're going to do within the next week or so."

A day before the conference call, Romney's South Carolina campaign consultant accused Huckabee of donning the title "Christian leader" in states where it is "politically expedient," telling a reporter that Huckabee had dropped that phrase from nearly identical ads running here and in New Hampshire.

"It shows that he appears to be a Christian leader where it's convenient," Romney adviser Terry Sullivan said Thursday.

"Why is it politically expedient to drop the words 'Christian Leader' from an ad?" Sullivan said. "It's obviously something he's proud of and he should be. I'm not sure why he's embarrassed of it in New Hampshire."

Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Thursday there was no effort to downplay religion in New Hampshire and noted the ads were simply different spots running in different markets, which is typical in presidential campaigns.

"I'm glad they have time to sit around and criticize our ads," she said.

After double-checking, Sullivan conceded Huckabee was using two different ads and that he had it wrong.

The sparring over religion has been going on all week.

An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee in an article to be published Sunday in The New York Times, asked a reporter, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

Huckabee apologized to Romney for the remark Wednesday, saying he had asked an innocent question during a lengthy conversation and it was taken out of context.

A Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey released Sunday showed Huckabee and Giuliani essentially tied in this early voting state, with 20 percent and 17 percent of support, respectively. That telephone poll of 400 likely GOP primary voters was taken Dec. 3-6 and has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.