Perry gets warm reception as surrogate attacks Romney's Mormon faith

Rick Perry was warmly received by attendees at the Value Voters Summit Friday while his newest campaign surrogate attacked Mitt Romney's religion.

Perry's address avoided any of the controversial issues surrounding the Texas governor but Pastor Robert Jeffress, the head of theSouthern Baptist Convention, sparked some controversy when he called Mormonism, Romney's religion, a cult.

“As evangelical Christians, we understand that Mormonism isn’t Christianity and thus the difference between someone who is good and moral like Mitt Romney and a true follower of Christ [like Perry],” Jeffress told reporters after Perry’s speech. “I think the decision for conservative evangelical Christians right now is going to be, do we prefer somebody who is truly a believer in Jesus Christ or somebody who is a good moral person but is a member of a cult? And it’s not politically correct to say but it is true: Mormonism is a cult.”

Jeffress formally endorsed Perry Friday, before he introduced the governor to the crowd. He said Perry had sought and welcomed his endorsement but that they had not discussed Perry’s views of Mormonism.

“I’m not insinuating that the governor shares my views at all,” he said. His backing is a big get because of his stature in the Southern evangelical community.

Perry distanced himself from Jeffress' remarks later in the day, saying he doesn't believe Mormonism is a cult.

"The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult," Perry spokesman Mark Miner said in a statement.

In his remarks, Jeffress made some subtle hints about Romney’s faith and previous stance on social issues, to some applause from the audience of mostly evangelical Christians, but stopped short of calling out the former Massachusetts governor by name.

“Once the smoke clears in several months, conservative Christians will have a choice to make,” Jeffress said during the speech. “Do we want someone who is a conservative out of convenience, or one who is a conservative out of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ? I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ.”

Romney, who is scheduled to address the summit on Saturday, is often met with skepticism by conservatives who don't like previous stands on abortion and gay rights.

He and Perry, the frontrunners in the GOP presidential race, have been trading hits about each other as they jockey for the nomination.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who organized the summit, told The Hill that Jeffress was correct in his view that Mormonism wasn’t Christianity from a theological perspective but that he thought most Evangelical Christians would not write off Romney solely because of his religion.

“He’s running to be commander in chief, he’s not running to be theologian in chief,” Perkins said.

Perry, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, got multiple standing ovations from the crowd. Much of his speech focused on his normal campaign themes, but the strongest audience reaction came when he talked about abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood, which provides inexpensive prenatal care -- including abortions -- for millions of women nationwide.

“All human life is made in the image of our creator, and every innocent life must be protected, from the most frail who are elderly to the most vulnerable, the unborn,” he said. “I was proud to fight for and proud to sign a budget that defunded Planned Parenthood.”

The crowd broke out into loud cheers and an extended standing ovation, by far the longest of his speech. Other big rounds of applause came for his calls to stand with Israel, defend military spending and cut back on the federal government.

Perry avoided the two issues that have plagued him with conservative voters: His support for giving undocumented immigrants in-state tuition in Texas and requiring teenage girls to get a vaccine against the HPV virus which guards against a sexually transmitted disease known to cause cervical cancer.

His discussion on immigration focused on red-meat issues. 

"I have lived and breathed this issue for more than a decade as a border governor,” he said, and blamed the federal government for failing to act. “The answers to these failures is not to grant amnesty to those who broke the laws,” he said to strong applause. “There is no homeland security without border security.”

Perkins said that the audience’s reaction to Perry showed they liked him despite of some of his controversial stances.

“It's a challenge for Rick Perry to distinguish himself in a field of very good social conservatives… but he clearly connected with his audience,” he said.  “You saw that – they were on their feet.”

The conference continues through Saturday, where there will be a straw poll. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) won last year's poll with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee coming in second and Romney taking third.

-- This story was updated at 4:28 p.m.

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