( AP )- Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made no apologies Sunday for the religious tone of a recent holiday campaign commercial and said it is important to look for Jesus at this time of year.
"You can find Santa at every mall. You can find discounts in every store," Huckabee said from the pulpit of Cornerstone Church. "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."
Huckabee was referring to the ad airing in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that shows him in a red sweater in front of a Christmas tree as he asks, "Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics? Well, I don't blame you. At this time of year sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and friends."
"And I hope that you and your friends will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God Bless and Merry Christmas. I'm Mike Huckabee and I approved this message," he says in the spot.
Independent groups have criticized the ad, saying Huckabee went too far mixing politics and religion. Others took exception to the cross-like image created by a white bookcase in the background, describing it as a subliminal message.
Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, has been on the defensive in recent weeks because of the ad and his rise in the polls, particularly in Iowa, where he has taken away the top spot from Republican rival Mitt Romney.
Speaking at a later church service, Huckabee said: "I got in a little trouble this last week because I actually had the audacity to say 'Merry Christmas.' Isn't that an odd thing to say at this time of year?"
Huckabee also discussed the ad during an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation" before delivering the sermons.
Asked whether he was running for president of Christian America, Huckabee said he was campaigning to be the "president of all America, to be the people's president. And that's how I served as governor."
He said the ad was put together quickly, and that book shelves formed the cross in the background.
"Everyone thought that we were so smart and clever. The truth is, it was a book shelf," Huckabee said. "We hurriedly put the spot together. It wasn't scripted. I ad-libbed the spot. It was done at the end of a long taping day, and really kind of a thought of, well, let's do a Christmas spot just in case we decide to use it maybe on our Web site."
At Cornerstone Church, Huckabee's more than 30-minute sermon to the nearly full 5,500-seat auditorium focused on the Christmas story, which he said was the "remarkable story of an unwed teenage mother."
"The great truth of Christmas is that no matter how good we are, we're not good enough to know God without the Christ," said Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. "And no matter how bad ... we are not so bad that he cannot find us."
Huckabee's campaign is trying to rally conservative Christians to help him win in early primary states, but he said his church appearance was not political.
"So while some people seem to want us to lose Jesus, I would like for us to do our best to find him," Huckabee said at the megachurch, where televangelist John Hagee is the senior pastor and founder.
Separately, The Dallas Morning News on Sunday endorsed Huckabee for the Republican presidential nomination. The newspaper said that while he is not an "ideal candidate," he "is the change agent the nation most needs."
The Morning News also endorsed Democrat Barack Obama "because of his consistently solid judgment, poise under pressure and ability to campaign effectively without resorting to the divisive politics of the past."
Huckabee was to attend a private fundraiser in San Antonio before returning to Arkansas for the holidays.