Story highlights

Mike Huckabee accused Obama of marching Israelis to "the door of the oven"

As Obama fired back, Huckabee pounced -- seizing a chance to rise in the polls

It's a strategy other 2016 hopefuls are following as they look to surge before the GOP debate

Washington CNN  — 

A Republican presidential candidate upended the 2016 conversation with contentious comments over the weekend — and this time it wasn’t Donald Trump.

With the clock ticking down to the first GOP presidential debate and more than a dozen candidates vying to make the cut and appear on the Fox News debate stage, those headlines could be lifeblood.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended himself Monday after President Barack Obama slammed his comments linking the Iran deal to the Holocaust as “ridiculous” and “sad.”

2016 election candidates

“What’s ‘ridiculous and sad’ is that President Obama does not take Iran’s repeated threats seriously. For decades, Iranian leaders have pledged to ‘destroy,’ ‘annihilate,’ and ‘wipe Israel off the map’ with a ‘big Holocaust,’” Huckabee said in a statement Monday just hours after Obama spoke. “Never again’ will be the policy of my administration and I will stand with our ally Israel to prevent the terrorists in Tehran from achieving their own stated goal of another Holocaust.”

Huckabee has continued to capitalize on the moment, with his campaign posting a video to Facebook within hours of Obama’s rebuke that earned more than 30,000 views within its 40 minutes online.

Republican candidates have tripped over themselves to criticize Trump for his heated rhetoric about immigration, Mexicans and even GOP Sen. John McCain. Huckabee’s Holocaust comparison drew no such rebuke, although several Republicans cautiously dismissed his language without rejecting his point.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – when asked by NPR about Huckabee’s comments – said the comments could “speak for themselves.”

“I’m going to tell you what I’m for, and you’re not hearing me use that sort of language,” Walker said.

In Orlando on Monday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush offered a brief response, calling Huckabee’s language “wrong” and urging Republicans to “tone down the rhetoric.”

“Having said that, this is a bad deal, and I can see why people are angry about it,” Bush said.

Bush and Walker can afford to be cautious; they and Donald Trump are almost assured a spot on the Aug. 6 debate stage in Cleveland. But for Huckabee and most of the rest of the 16-person GOP Field, that debate spot could represent a key moment of truth.

The first debate will include the 10 GOP contenders leading in an aggregate of the five most recent nationwide polls released before Aug. 4 at 5 p.m, two days before the first debate on Fox News.

Until then, the bottom-tier candidates are making a mad dash for the headlines – with many using controversy to command attention in the press, and boost their poll numbers – as Trump’s loud rise to the top of the polls has left little room for lesser known candidates to be heard.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is on the cusp of breaking into the top 10, has tried to seal his spot in the debate by positioning himself as the top Trump attack dog – relentlessly pursuing Trump in recent weeks in comments that quickly got picked up in news outlets.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has also hammered Trump, particularly in the wake of his comments questioning whether former prisoner of war and Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain is a war hero. And after Trump disclosed Graham’s personal cell phone number, the South Carolina senator took to the internet with a viral video of him destroying his cell phone.

The strategy doesn’t appear to have borne any results for either candidate though, as both stared down 1% of support in the CNN/ORC poll released Sunday.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who faces the same gloomy percentage, is also looking for a way out of the dredges.

A Super PAC supporting the former Iowa caucus winner released an ad online Monday that goes after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Huckabee, who came in 7th and 9th place, respectively, in the CNN/ORC poll.

At the same time, Santorum is echoing Huckabee’s harsh rhetoric, calling the Holocaust analogy “absolutely right” in an interview on Fox Radio’s “The John Gibson Show.”

“Look, this is the same type of dehumanization of Jews, the same type of recreating history that we saw in Nazi Germany. So no, I see this regime as equally virulent in its hatred of Jews,” Santorum said. “in my opinion there really can’t be strong enough arguments again– strong enough language against this proposal.”

And while looking to boost their own fortunes, those candidates headline-grabbing antics also serve the purpose of looking to shift the conversation away from Trump.

Huckabee’s remarks – in which he accused Obama of marching Israelis to “the door of the oven” – drew swift condemnation from top Jewish leaders, including the heads of anti-Semitism and anti-racism watchdogs like the the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Anti-Defamation League.

Anti-Defamation League: Huckabee ‘completely out of line’

“To hear Mr. Huckabee invoke the Holocaust when America is Israel’s greatest ally and when Israel is a strong nation capable of defending itself is disheartening,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the latter group.

In Huckabee’s case, using a sharp tone to discuss Iran politics is nothing new. He has repeatedly slammed the Iran deal as dangerous for the U.S. and Israel since even before the deal was forged.

Huckabee drew on a widely-repudiated ad from five decades ago to slam the Iran deal, posting an ad online slamming the Iran deal that raised the prospects of a nuclear bomb explosion. The ad included footage from the infamous “Daisy” ad from 1964, depicting a little girl picking petals off a daisy before a nuclear bomb explodes on screen.

Huckabee’s campaign did not respond CNN’s request to comment.

For their part, Democrats aren’t missing an opportunity to slam Huckabee’s comments, as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called the remarks “out of line,” eager to paint their GOP counterparts as extremists.

RELATED: Clinton repudiates Huckabee’s comments on Israel as ‘over the line’

The nation’s top Democrat – Obama – suggested as well that Huckabee was playing politics and that “this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines.”

“The American people deserve better,” Obama said at his press conference. “Certainly presidential debates deserve better.”

CNN’s Ashley Killough and Tom Lobianco contributed to this report.