On Saturday, Romney answered Jeffress' charge: He praised former Reagan official Bill Bennett, who spoke ahead of Romney at the conference. "You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say," said Bennett, denouncing Jeffress for "bigotry" against Mormons.
"Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett!" Romney said as soon as he took to the podium.
It was a subtle but unmistakable rebuttal. Romney also asked Jay Selukow, a conservative lawyer who publicly debated Jeffress over Romney's religion in 2008, to introduce him. And Romney's campaign had been in touch with Bennett ahead of the conference because they were concerned about a different speaker, American Family Association Bryan Fischer, Bennett told The Associated Press.
Bennett called for unity among conservatives as they choose a nominee for president in 2012.
Romney echoed that call in his remarks. "We should remember that decency and civility are values too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think," Romney said, referring to Fischer, who has made anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim remarks in the past. "Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind."
In the 2008 campaign, Romney endured criticism about his faith from rival Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister.
So far, none of Romney's rivals has directly attacked his faith — and Romney has dismissed the issue in interviews. "The great majority of Americans understand that this nation was founded on the principle religious tolerance and liberty so most people do not make their decision based on someone's faith," he said earlier this year.
But Perry's sudden entry into the race — he announced his candidacy in August — forced the Romney campaign to go on offense. Perry raised $17 million in the first six weeks of his campaign and is building infrastructure to challenge Romney across the primary map, and particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelical voters are large and influential segments of the primary electorate.
And while Perry's religion stayed out of race at first, the overt and political nature of his faith was bound to change that.
He has deep ties to evangelical Christian leaders, particularly in the South. In early August, Perry convened a prayer rally that drew more than 20,000 people to a football stadium in Houston. While his advisers insist his appearance was not political, Perry attended fundraising dinners for the event as part of his official schedule as governor, and he hit on political themes during his appearance there.
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