LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Saturday defended statements he made 15 years ago in which he advocated isolating AIDS patients from the general public and suggested homosexuality could "pose a dangerous public health risk."
Huckabee made the statements as a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992, the Associated Press reported, as part of his answers to 229 questions submitted to him by the AP.
But Huckabee said Saturday that he wrote those answers at a time when little was known about the virus.
"If I was making those same comments today, I might make them a little differently, but obviously I have to stand by what I said," he told reporters at a stop in Asheville, N.C., where he was peppered with questions.
"It's flattering that people now are digging back everything I ever wrote and ever said," he added. "And there must be something about my campaign that's catching on. But you know if the worst thing somebody can say about me is that 15 years ago I said that we need to be very careful about this transmission of disease, then I'm probably gonna be okay."
Huckabee released a detailed written statement earlier in the day defending his comments.
"In the late 80’s and early 90’s we were still learning about the virus that causes AIDS. My concern, as a Senate candidate at the time, was to deal with the virus using the same public health protocols that medical science and public health professionals would use with any infectious disease," he said. "Before a disease can be cured and contained we need to know exactly how and with near certainty what level of contact transmits the disease. There was still too much confusion about HIV transmission in those early years."
Huckabee said the focus at the time was to limit exposure, and that we now know the virus is spread differently than originally thought.
"But looking back almost 20 years, my concern was the uncertain risk to the general population — if we got it wrong, many people would die needlessly. My concern was safety first, political correctness last," he said.
He complimented the United States for leading the global battle against HIV/AIDS and said his administration would have an "overarching strategy" to deal with it.
The former Arkansas governor is attempting damage control on the issue at a time when his candidacy is surging. He has come from relative obscurity to challenge the top-tier GOP candidates not only in early test states, but nationally. The newfound popularity has made him a magnet for criticism from his rivals.
A new Newsweek poll showed Huckabee with 39 percent support among likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with just 17 percent.
The Southern Baptist preacher has also appealed to Christian conservatives for his vocal opposition to gay marriage and other stances.
But in the 1992 survey, Huckabee suggested several bizarre proposals. To one question, he suggested Hollywood celebrities fund AIDS research from their own pockets, rather than federal health agencies.
"If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague," Huckabee wrote.
"It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents."
Huckabee was elected lieutenant governor the next year and became governor of Arkansas in 1996.
When asked about AIDS research in 1992, Huckabee complained that AIDS research received an unfair share of federal dollars when compared to cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Huckabee also wrote that: "I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk."
Huckabee said Saturday that he still believes homosexuality is "sinful."
When Huckabee wrote his answers in 1992, it was common knowledge that AIDS could not be spread by casual contact. In late 1991, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 195,718 AIDS patients in the country and that 126,159 people had died from the syndrome.
Since becoming a presidential candidate this year, Huckabee has supported increased federal funding for AIDS research through the National Institutes of Health.
"My administration will be the first to have an overarching strategy for dealing with HIV and AIDS here in the United States, with a partnership between the public and private sectors that will provide necessary financing and a realistic path toward our goals," Huckabee said in a statement posted on his campaign Web site last month.
FOX News' Serafin Gomez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.