(Updated at 9:38 p.m. ET)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday tersely repudiated the remarks of a Dallas pastor who disparaged the Mormon faith of Perry’s presidential rival, Mitt Romney shortly after introducing Perry at the Values Voters summit in Washington.
In Tiffin, Iowa, where Perry flew for a barbecue after his speech to the gathering of social conservatives, he was asked three times whether he agreed with the pastor Robert Jeffress’ characterization of Mormonism as “a cult.”
“No,” Perry said to the first question. To the second: “ No, I’ve already answered that back there. I told him no.” Asked by a third reporter whether he associated himself with the pastor’s remarks, Perry said: “I already answered that question,” before being whisked out the door.
Perry’s comments were his first public remarks on a contretemps that surfaced an issue that has long dogged Romney and now may haunt Romney as well: the question of whether religious differences will become a factor in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. In comments to reporters after the governor’s speech at the Values Voters gathering, Jeffress bluntly predicted that it would.
He described Romney's Mormon faith as "a cult” and suggested that it precluded him from winning the support of evangelical voters.
"That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult," Jeffress told reporters. "Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian."
In subsequent interviews with with the National Journal and CBS News, Jeffress reiterated those views. Romney is “not a Christian,” said Jeffress. “That doesn’t mean he’s a bad person but I think his commitment to conservative values is highly suspect.”
Perry spokesman Mark Miner quickly distanced the campaign from Jeffress’ comments, telling National Journal and CBS News in an e-mail: “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult.”
The senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress said he is highlighting Romney’s religion deliberately because of the likelihood that the former Massachusetts governor could win the nomination. But Jeffress, who stayed behind long after his introduction to make himself available for media interviews, also revealed he has a book coming out in January about his religious views.
He predicted that Romney’s Mormon faith will be a “major factor” in the GOP contest.
“The thing is (evangelicals) just won’t be honest and tell you it’s going to be a major factor,” Jeffress said. “Most people don’t want to admit, even evangelical Christians, that they have a problem with Mormonism. They think it’s bigoted to say so. But what voters say to a pollster is sometimes different than what they do in the privacy of a voting booth.”
At the lectern, Jeffress introduced his state’s governor as a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ” and said he visited Perry when he was “praying about” whether to make a run for the presidency.
Afterwards, he described himself as an acquaintance of Perry’s. “I haven’t gone coyote hunting with him,” he quipped. “I’ve met him a few times. I know him well enough to know his faith in Christ is genuine.”
Jeffress called President Obama the “most pro-abortion, most pro-homosexual president we’ve ever had,” and said that given a choice between him and Romney, he’d vote for Romney. But the pastor added: “If Mitt Romney is the nominee, Barack Obama will be the next president. Mitt Romney will not energize evangelicals.”
When asked if the campaign had any official response to Jeffress' comments today, communications director Gail Gitcho emailed "No."
Romney, like fellow GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an affiliation that is believed to have cost him support in his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Jeffress’s comment drew a rebuke from another presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has close ties to many social conservatives. Romney’s religion is not a cult, he said.
“What I see in Mormonism is good strong moral values, very much in line with the values of conservatives,” said Santorum. Asked whether evangelicals would hesitate to back him, Santorum said he didn’t know. “I’m Catholic,” he quipped.
Huisenga reported from Iowa; Kaplan and Reinhard reported from Washington. Also contributing: Caroline Horn and Brian Monopoli,