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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Rising Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee risked his standing with Catholic voters on Sunday by courting his evangelical base at the church of a controversial preacher accused of disparaging Catholics.
There are a few remnants of anti-Catholicism among evangelical Christians in the South but the two sides have found much common political ground over the past three decades in their strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
But the visit to Cornerstone, pastor John Hagee's imposing "mega-church" in the Texas city of San Antonio, was fraught with political perils for Huckabee given his efforts to woo conservative Catholics.
Huckabee, a folksy former Arkansas governor and former Baptist preacher, has had a meteoric rise in opinion polls in recent weeks, largely because he has connected with the Republican Party's influential evangelical wing.
This puts him in serious contention with less than two weeks before the January 3 nomination battle in Iowa, which starts the state-by-state process to pick the Republican and Democratic candidates for November's presidential election.
Religion plays a big role in politics in the United States, where levels of belief and church attendance are much higher than in Europe. Evangelicals number around 60 million in the country of 300 million people, while the Catholic population has been put at close to 70 million.
Taking a break from the Iowa campaign trail, Huckabee delivered a Christmas season sermon at Cornerstone about Christ's birth and embraced Hagee, calling him "one of the great Christian leaders of our nation."
Hagee is a fiery preacher best known for his writings on the Middle East, where he reads contemporary events as unfolding Biblical prophecy. He is staunchly pro-Israel, saying that God had made his love for the land and its people clear.
The Catholic League says Hagee is virulently anti-Catholic -- a charge he denies -- and it is getting the word out that Huckabee is rubbing shoulders with an anti-Vatican figure.
Huckabee's campaign insisted his visit to Hagee's church should in no way be taken as a slight to Catholics.
"Three members of the senior leadership of the campaign are Catholic, including our national chairman. Gov. Huckabee is committed to being a leader of all Americans," said Charmaine Yoest, one of his senior advisers.
But some Catholics were angry about the visit.
"Hagee has a history of denigrating the Catholic religion," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, the largest Catholic civil rights group in the United States.
In his recent book "Jerusalem Countdown," Hagee wrote: "Most readers will be shocked by the clear record of history linking Adolf Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church in a conspiracy to exterminate the Jews."
In the same book, Hagee did applaud the late Pope John Paul II's efforts to reach out to Jews.
But Catholic bloggers on the Internet were mostly critical about Huckabee's visit. The Catholic News Agency ran the headline: "Mike Huckabee to speak at strongly anti-Catholic preacher's church."
One Catholic blogger said while Huckabee was an eloquent spokesman for the "culture of life" -- code for the anti-abortion cause -- his visit to "a church pastored by a raving anti-Catholic bigot" was deeply troubling.
At Cornerstone, Huckabee's appearance went down well with the crowd of several thousand worshipers, who frequently interrupted his remarks with loud applause.
"I think he is a good and godly man," said Suzanne Ramirez. But asked whether she planned to vote for Huckabee in the Texas primary in March, Ramirez said she had not made up her mind.
Huckabee said earlier on Sunday on the CBS show "Face the Nation" that he was running to be president of the entire United States, not just the Christian community.
"That's how I served as governor," he said. "People look at my record and they didn't see that I put a tent out on the capital grounds and had healing services and I didn't replace the dome with a steeple."
Writing and additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by John O'Callaghan