LYNCHBURG, Va. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry avoided contentious social issues in a speech Wednesday at the nation's largest evangelical university, offering the youth a testimonial about his own path to Christian faith and praising the men and women of the military.
The Republican presidential contender urged students at Liberty University to remember the legacies of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without explicitly invoking his own presidential bid, he cast life's choices as tributes to the military's sacrifice in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"A great many of those who perished were approximately your age. Young men and women whose entire future was in front of them. They sacrificed their dreams to preserve yours," a somber Perry said on the campus founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"Because of what they gave, I simply ask you to make the most of the freedom that they sacrificed."
In a brief detour into politics, he urged the students to speak up for the kind of country and future they want. "Don't leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life," he said.
Perry's 20-minute speech to a packed arena was warmly received. But it was unlikely to quiet building criticism from his GOP rivals over two cultural issues: his failed effort to require girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease and a Texas law allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Neither issue sits well with social conservatives, who hold great sway in the GOP nomination race.
The GOP race has been dominated by economic concerns and criticism of President Barack Obama's stewardship, pushing such cultural questions to the back burner. But in recent days, during a debate Monday and on the campaign trail, Perry's rivals have started trying to exploit Perry's perceived weaknesses on such issues to deflate his front-runner status in national polls.
"It is time that Gov. Perry is known for what he really is: not a long-time conservative governor, but a big-government moderate who has made a career of supporting harmful policies during his tenure as governor," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said Tuesday.
Specifically, Santorum, Rep. Michelle Bachmann and other opponents for the Republican presidential nomination are singling Perry out for signing an executive order in 2007 requiring Texas girls to be vaccinated against the virus that can cause cervical cancer, an effort the Legislature rejected.
On immigration, Perry has had to defend in-state tuition for illegal immigrants as well as his opposition to a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Both positions conflict with conservative GOP orthodoxy.
Perry ignored those divisive issues in his remarks on this campus in central Virginia. Instead, he introduced himself as a small-town native who went to college hoping to become a veterinarian but struggled with his studies.
"Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me," the Air Force veteran joked.
Perry also described his spiritual path as a young man, saying that at age 27 he was "lost, spiritually and emotionally," drifting with no sense of purpose.
"My faith journey is not as someone who turned to God because I wanted to," Perry said. "It was because I had nowhere else to turn."
He also brought a spiritual element to his recollections of the Sept. 11 attacks, noting that many of the students were just children on that day. "You've grown up fast and you know the presence of evil is real in this fallen world," he said.
So far, voters are saying the economy and the 9.1 percent national unemployment rate matter most in the GOP race. In rough economic times, feeding the family tends to trump social issues.
But Perry's rivals have been trying to change that. Perry complicates Bachmann's prospects because both appeal to similar voters — tea partyers who are frustrated with the economy and say Washington is out of touch and social conservatives who care about cultural issues.
Both Perry and Bachmann are competing for voters who are looking for an alternative to Romney. He is running for president a second time after losing in 2008; Romney wasn't able to overcome skepticism of his Mormon faith among evangelicals in the lead-off caucus in Iowa and first-in-the-South primary state South Carolina.
The candidates are likely to take on social issues again next week when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy formally ends, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
The GOP contenders are already using social issues to raise money ahead of the next campaign collection deadline, Sept. 30. Santorum and Bachmann both wrote to supporters asking for money after Monday's GOP debate — and noted their attacks on Perry's record on social issues.