MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (CNN) -- Reacting to criticism by his own party that he is too liberal, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is highlighting his conservative, evangelical Southern credentials to South Carolina primary voters.
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speaks in South Carolina on Thursday.
The Iowa caucus winner weighed in Thursday on the state's perennial debate over displaying the Confederate flag, expressing sympathy with those who believe the rebel banner should be flown. The flag is also considered by many to be a symbol of slavery.
"You don't like people from outside the state telling you what to do with your flag," he told an audience in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them where to put the pole."
But later in the day at another campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina, Huckabee said the flag matter "has no business from the president of the United States."
"It's really not something that's an issue for the president of the United States," he said. "That's an issue for the people of South Carolina to deal with." Watch Huckabee attempt to win over Southern voters »
Republican candidate John McCain called the Confederate flag a "symbol of heritage" during this 2000 bid for the White House. After he lost the primary, McCain apologized for that statement, calling it "a sacrifice of principle for personal ambition."
In a state where religious conservatives comprised about a third of GOP primary voters in 2000, affable former Baptist pastor Huckabee has added a new dash of the old-time religion to his populist economic pitch.
He has reiterated his support for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and same-sex marriage -- which he told the Web site Beliefnet.com could open the door to polygamy, pedophilia and bestiality.
"Once we change the definition, the door is open to change it again," he said.
Before Michigan's primary earlier this week, Huckabee also said this: "What we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards, rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family."
And he has toughened his stance on illegal immigration, signing a pledge Wednesday to oppose "amnesty" for illegal immigrants if elected.
Huckabee has placed third in the two major GOP contests since Iowa. Top rivals McCain and Mitt Romney have split those contests, with Romney winning his native Michigan and McCain repeating his 2000 victory in New Hampshire the previous week.
Every South Carolina winner since 1980 has gone on to claim the Republican presidential nomination, so Saturday's primary is seen as a critical contest for the GOP presidential field. McCain and Huckabee are leading published polls in South Carolina, where McCain's previous White House bid was torpedoed. Watch how campaigns can turn brutal »
This year, with the national economy faltering, McCain spent Thursday emphasizing the subject. He told supporters outside his Columbia headquarters that his version of an economic stimulus plan would involve tax cuts, tax credits for research and investment, and a tight rein on federal spending. He avoided the "straight talk" he used in Michigan when he told workers their lost jobs were unlikely to return.
"We have some tough times ahead," McCain said. "But I want to look you in the eye and remind you this is still the most powerful and greatest nation on Earth."
Huckabee also faces a threat from former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, whose late-starting campaign is pushing hard in South Carolina. Thompson, the former lobbyist and actor, has been pounding Huckabee at every turn as a closeted liberal, particularly on immigration.
"He is trying to remake himself in a lot of respects," Thompson told CNN in a Thursday interview. "He is a populist, he is liberal on some things. He has a very liberal immigration policy. He supports public funding for illegal immigrants in Arkansas. And now he is trying to walk away from a lot of those things."
Thompson was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee. But Huckabee made dramatic inroads among the state's social conservatives while Thompson pondered whether to enter the 2008 race.
Thompson "may have waited a little too late," said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican who has not endorsed any candidate. "He may have missed his opening. Politics is a process very much tied to timing."
Meanwhile, Romney appears to be shifting his campaign's focus from South Carolina to Saturday's GOP caucuses in Nevada after Huckabee and McCain eclipsed him in the polls. Romney was scheduled to campaign in Nevada on Friday and will spend Saturday in Florida, which holds its primaries January 29.
But South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson said the former Massachusetts governor may be making a mistake by writing off his state.
"The base of the Republican Party is the Southern firewall," Dawson told CNN. "Every president who has won the nomination has won a solid bloc of the South." E-mail to a friend
CNN's John King, Dana Bash and Peter Hamby contributed to this report.
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