ABC's Sawyer: Huckabee's 'Heavy Handed' Ad Plays 'Religion Card'

Good Morning America host Diane Sawyer apparently has a significant problem with 2008 GOP contender Mike Huckabee's new ad that identifies the candidate as a "Christian leader." On Tuesday's program, Sawyer fretted over whether "we crossed a line here" and asked guest Newt Gingrich if the campaign spot is "just too heavy-handed about specific denominations?" The GMA host also speculated that Huckabee might be playing the "religion card."

Sawyer simply couldn't let go of the "Christian leader" phrase, which appeared in an onscreen graphic of a new ad for the Arkansas Governor. After playing a clip of the spot, Sawyer sputtered, "He put up there on the screen, Christian, Christian leader. Not spiritual leader, Christian leader." She then asked the former House Speaker, officially appearing to promote a pro-religion documentary he worked on, if Huckabee's usage of the term would "backfire" on him. After pointing out the political benefit that the 2008 candidate might receive, Gingrich dryly noted, "You know, he's not running in New York State." Not to be deterred, Sawyer pressed for specifics. "But do you approve of that 'Christian leader' on his ad," she wondered.  

In total, the GMA host asked Gingrich three times if he deemed the advertisement acceptable. At one point, she lectured, "But it's one thing to say share his belief and it's another thing to talk about American politics and all of the people who are going to vote." After spending a grand total of 30 seconds actually talking about "Rediscovering God in America," Gingrich's book-turned DVD, Sawyer seemed to get in one last dig. She closed, "...[The DVD is] a really interesting question about our times and God and spirituality versus specific denominations." Note that the phrase "specific denominations" was also used when Sawyer attacked Huckabee's campaign spot.

It should also be pointed out that Sawyer prefaced a question about the Democratic race by sarcastically/jokingly telling the Republican, "You can be very dispassionate, analytical here." Of course, the veteran journalist has never hinted that fellow ABC colleague George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton operative, is anything less then objective. In fact, in July of 2001, she gushed to him, "You've been completely non-partisan in covering the news."

A transcript of the segment, which aired at 7:08am on November 27, follows:

DIANE SAWYER: As we said, it's now just a little more than five weeks to the first vote in Iowa. Here it comes for real. What are you going to do for the afterburners now? What are the candidates going to do? Well, we decided to bring in one of the field marshals of American politics, author of "Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in our Nation's History," which by the way is out on DVD starting today. Republican Newt Gingrich, good morning to you."

NEWT GINGRICH: Good to be with you.

SAWYER: So, let's take a look at what this is. Let's start on the Democratic side. You can be very dispassionate, analytical here. The latest Democratic preference poll in Iowa has Senator Obama at 30 percent, Senator Clinton at 26 percent. And it seems they're going to call in the charisma brigade here because Senator Clinton's bringing in former President Clinton today and Oprah Winfrey is going to go in on December 8th and 9th. She's going in to Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, for Obama. My question is, who's going to win this showdown? How much are they going to help?

ABC GRAPHIC: Religion & Politics: Gingrich on God's Role

GINGRICH: Well, I mean, I'm a Republican so I don't know that my, my analysis counts much for Democrats. But my guess is that Senator Obama's going to win Iowa and that he's going to win it by a surprising margin and that it will happen for a couple reasons. One is that, I think Oprah Winfrey is a remarkable figure. And I think that she brings a -- not just a celebrity status, but there are millions of people who trust her judgment.

SAWYER: You think this is going to tip it?

GINGRICH: I think it's a significant asset to him and he's not married to her. I think there's a double edged sword when President Clinton shows up, because he also reminds you, do you really want two presidents in the White House? And do you really want Mrs. Clinton to have to rely on President Clinton to have to win the-- I mean, there A lot of different emotions building here. But I also think-- This is going to be the night of the Orange Bowl. And it's the third of January. And you've got to say to yourself, you don't just go vote. I'm willing to go and spend three hours in a local precinct to help pick somebody. And I have a hunch that the emotional energy that Senator Obama's building is more powerful than the emotional energy Senator Clinton's building. I have great respect for her and they have a tremendous machine. But it just seems to me that right now in Iowa at least Senator Obama's beginning to building a real head of steam.

SAWYER: All right, you heard it called here first. Now, let's turn to the Republicans if we can. Because, as we know, former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, 28 percent. Former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, now 24 percent. As we know, Governor Romney is, is, is a Mormon, and Governor Huckabee is a former Baptist minister. Is it true that he is now in the final days playing his card, which is the religion card? This is a new ad out. Take a look at this.

[Huckabee ad]

MIKE HUCKABEE: Faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me. [Onscreen graphic: Christian Leader] I don't have to wake up every day, wondering, what do I need to believe? Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now, not ever. I believe life begins at conception. We believe in some things. We stand by those things. We live or die by those things.

[Ad ends]

SAWYER: He put up there on the screen, Christian, Christian leader. Not spiritual leader, Christian leader. In this nation of many faiths, is this going to be backfire on him?

GINGRICH: No, I don't -- remember what he's trying to do right now. He's trying to come out of nowhere with no money, and he's trying to emerge as a genuine contender. And so, he is sending a very strong and powerful message to people who share his beliefs. And it's really two messages. One message is that he is, he is a former-- He is a Baptist minister and he has a background as Christian. You know, he's not running in New York State.

SAWYER: But it's-- But it's one thing to say share his belief and it's another thing to talk about American politics and all of the people who are going to vote. You know, Peggy Noonan wrote a column over the weekend and here's what she said: "In 1968, we were, as now, a religious country. But when we talked to the polls, we thought were about to hire a president, not a Bible study teacher." And she's quite clear here. She says, "We have come to a pass where we push candidates against the wall and do a kind of theological frisk on him," pointing out Ronald Reagan wore his faith very lightly. Have we crossed a line here and just too heavy-handed about specific denominations?"

GINGRICH: Well, I mean, you're in a country where the courts have been ruling against any religious observance in public for the last 40 years with greater and greater intensity. A country where are willing to say you shouldn't say the word Christmas.

SAWYER: But do you approve of that "Christian leader" on his ad?

GINGRICH: Look, Huckabee has got to run his own campaign. But Huckabee is clearly not at all embarrassed to say that he's a Christian. Now, you know, when Joe Lieberman ran, he wasn't at all embarrassed to say that he was a deeply committed person of Jewish faith.

SAWYER: All right. I've got only a second or two left. Want to point out to everybody that your DVD, by the way, gives you a kind of tour of Washington in which you examine spirituality in Washington through the monuments --

GINGRICH: Well, we start with the Declaration of Independence, which says your rights and my rights come from God and point out that we're the only country in the world that says that.

SAWYER: All right, well, you're going to come back and explore this more because it's a really interesting question about our times and God and spirituality versus specific denominations.

GINGRICH: Glad to be with you.

SAWYER: Good to see you. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving. Happy Christmas to come.

Scott Whitlock is a media analyst with the Media Research Center.