Mitt’s strategy now is Huck’s strategy in the general, if he gets that far: Deflect questions about any and all idiosyncratic beliefs by declaring them beyond the pale. To wit:

In an article to be published Sunday in The New York Times, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, asks, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

Romney, vying to become the first Mormon elected president, declined to answer that question during an interview Wednesday, saying church leaders in Salt Lake City had already addressed the topic.

“But I think attacking someone’s religion is really going too far. It’s just not the American way, and I think people will reject that,” Romney told NBC’s “Today” show.

Asked if he believed Huckabee was speaking in a coded language to evangelicals, Romney praised his rival as a “good man trying to do the best he can,” but he added, “I don’t believe that the people of this country are going to choose a person based on their faith and what church they go to.”

Click the image at the end of the post to watch. The Times piece is out this morning and here’s how the exchange went down. Innocent curiosity or calculated insinuation? You make the call:

Chapter 3 also contains the admonition to ‘‘keep sound wisdom and discretion.’’ Huckabee is, indeed, a discreet fellow, but he has no trouble making his feelings known. He mentioned how much he respected his fellow candidates John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani. The name of his principal rival in Iowa, Mitt Romney, went unmentioned. Romney, a Mormon, had promised that he would be addressing the subject of his religion a few days later. I asked Huckabee, who describes himself as the only Republican candidate with a degree in theology, if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. ‘‘I think it’s a religion,’’ he said. ‘‘I really don’t know much about it.’’

I was about to jot down this piece of boilerplate when Huckabee surprised me with a question of his own: ‘‘Don’t Mormons,’’ he asked in an innocent voice, ‘‘believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’’

Laura Ingraham’s reportedly hammering him over it. I wonder if all this scrutiny of his religious pronouncements — the “Christian leader” ad, the ’98 statement about wives serving their husbands, now this — won’t spark some backlash among evangelicals who feel their basic beliefs are being treated as a disqualifying factor for the presidency. That would be another ironic parallel with Mormons vis-a-vis Romney. Huck’s sure to try to leverage the sentiment against the Democrats when they come after him over this but it’s harder to sell a “my opponent hates God” message in a Republican primary.

The debate this afternoon? Gonna be sweet.

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