Five presidential candidates appeared at the opening day of the Values Voter Summit in Washington Friday, but the speech getting the most attention was one by a pastor from Dallas who introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Every year in Washington, social conservatives from across the country gather for the summit, an event sponsored by the Family Research Council. In presidential years, the summit is a must-stop for GOP candidates.
Dr. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas was there to introduce his fellow Texan, but he was also there — as a pre-speech press release stated — to draw sharp contrast between Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“Those of us who are evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make,” he began.
The pastor said it’s a choice between a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or leadership — one who is a conservative out of convenience or one out of deep conviction. He didn’t mention Romney by name, but it was clear he was talking about Romney and Romney’s religion, Mormonism.
“Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” he said.
Perry then took the stage.
“I want to thank you for a rousing introduction,” Perry said. “He knocked it out of the park, as we like to say.”
Perry delivered a variation on his standard stump speech, but it was Jeffress who was making news. Talking to a group of reporters in the hallway, he was asked to clarify what he was saying about Romney. He said Romney isn’t a Christian. On multiple occasions in that exchange, he called Mormonism a cult. Then, on CNN, he repeated himself.
“That’s not some fanatical comment. That’s been the historic position of evangelical Christianity. The southern Baptist convention, which is the largest protestant denomination in the world, has officially labeled Mormonism as a cult,” he said.
The Perry campaign responded, saying Perry does not believe Mormonism is a cult.
Romney was not at the Values Voter Summit Friday; he speaks Saturday. This audience has long been suspicious of the former Massachusetts governor on social issues. He once supported abortion rights, but is now anti-abortion rights. Many evangelicals simply don’t believe him.
One prominent Romney supporter who was at the event Friday was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. He said Romney has a story to tell about personal values and about his family and his time in public life.
“He lives the values that he talks about and exemplifies, and I think that is going to be clear to people who are at this meeting this week,” he said.
While all of this was playing out, another candidate was preparing to speak — Atlanta businessman Herman Cain. In recent weeks, Perry’s poll numbers have fallen and Cain’s have risen significantly. He talked about his new prominence in the field.
“You know, when you run for president, and you move into the top tier, I’m just saying, you get this bull’s-eye on your back,” he said.
Cain is bracing himself for tougher scrutiny and attacks to come, both from his rival candidates and from the media — the kind of challenge Romney and Perry are already used to.