By Michael O'Brien - 08/06/11 12:05 PM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) high-profile prayer gathering Saturday is set to pave the way for his possible but increasingly likely late entry into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The event — dubbed "The Response," to be held at Houston's Reliant Stadium — is being billed as an apolitical gathering for citizens concerned about the direction of the country.
But its political overtones, which are broadcast particularly to the antennae of social conservatives, are unmistakable.
The event is a chance for Perry to burnish his credentials as an evangelical Christian before entering the race, even if he's promised to keep politics out of the event.
"As an elected leader, I'm all too aware of government's limitations when it comes to fixing things that are spiritual in nature. That's where prayer comes in," Perry said in a July video pitching the day of prayer.
The event has drawn scrutiny from civil liberties groups, which have criticized the apparent lack of separation of church and state and are upset about some event participants' beliefs about same-sex relationships.
A judge dismissed a suit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation looking to bar Perry from participating in the event.
Republicans have looked to Perry as the possible candidate to ignite voter enthusiasm in a GOP presidential field where many primary voters aren't thrilled about their choices. Despite not having even entered the race, Perry checked in as the second-place choice of Republicans, at 15 percent, in the Gallup poll's latest test of GOP voters' choice in a nominee.
Not many other politicians have RSVP'ed to Perry's event. No other governors are confirmed to attend, except Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who faces pressure from some groups in his state to withdraw.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Perry's primary foe in the 2010 race for governor, said she welcomed the day of prayer, and expected Perry to eventually enter the presidential race, although she's not committing to supporting Perry.
"I do think he's running," she said Friday on MSNBC. "I think that's very clear. He's putting all of the building blocks in place."
Perry's worked in other ways to boost his credentials with social conservatives ahead of the campaign; he told the Christian Broadcasting Network this week that he supports constitutional amendments to ban abortion and to bar same-sex marriage.
"I support the Federal Marriage Amendment. And I also support the same with the issue of abortion, and I also support that same process for a balanced-budget amendment to the United States Constitution," he said.