HOUSTON—Rick Perry is nearly certain to declare he's running for president, likely before the end of the month. But on Saturday, Perry sounded more like a reverend than a candidate—raising questions of what kind of campaign he will run.
Perry played pastor to an estimated crowd of more than 30,000 people at what was billed as an “apolitical Christian prayer meeting” that he helped convene here. The event, dubbed “The Response,” was billed as an appeal for divine invervention to help the nation address a host of problems.
The Response underscored Perry's appeal to religious conservatives, who remain an important voting bloc within the GOP, and he is far from the first presidential hopeful to aggressively court their vote. But if Saturday's event showcased the governor's appeal to that voting base, it also highlighted the possibility that it could jeopardize his support among moderates, even those in the GOP.
Set against a backdrop of three big-screen TVs carrying his voice through the cavernous NFL stadium holding the event, Perry's performance recalled the sweeping sermons that preachers deliver at mega-churches. It came on a day that his potential GOP presidential rivals were pouncing on news of the nation’s credit-rating downgrade to rip President Obama on economic policy.
"Father, our heart breaks for America," he said, leading the crowd in a prayer. "We see discord at home, we see fear in the marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. As a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that we cry out for your forgiveness. We pray for our nation's leaders, for parents, for pastors, for generals, for governors, that you would inspire them."
Although the event featured a litany of speakers, there was one clear message: America has strayed from its Christian past, and needs to return to its faith in Jesus to successfully overcome its challenges. Delivering that message were two controversial social conservatives, former Focus on the Family head James Dobson and the Rev. John Hagee.
Dobson, who delivered the event's opening prayer with his wife, said the peril the United States faces is the same that French and British soldiers faced when surrounded by Germany's armies during World War II. Dobson said those troops were saved because the people of Britain prayed to God for help. He urged the Houston audience to do the same.
"Ladies and gentleman, we desperately need our own miracle of Dunkirk today," he said. "Our nation is surrounded by forces that we don't control, and we have problems that none of our leaders can solve. We've come to end of our rope, and we've come here today to call on our Lord for a miracle, a miracle of Dunkirk to occur in this great nation.
"And I believe God is going to hear our prayers today," he said.
Shortly after Perry spoke, he was followed on stage by Hagee, who himself is no stranger to controversy. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was forced to repudiate Hagee's endorsement bid after it was revealed that the minister had once said the Holocaust was part of God's plan to chase Jews from Europe.
"We confess that we are still a Judeo-Christian nation," said Hagee, drawing cheers. "We confess that we are still one nation under God. We confess that you are a creator of heaven and earth."
One of the cosponsors of The Response, the American Family Association, has been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay rights agenda. When he returned to the stage at the end of the daylong prayer rally, Perry expressly thanked the AFA for helping organize the event.
In aligning himself with the AFA, Perry may be putting himself counter to the views of many voters, including many Republicans. Recent Gallup polls have shown an increasing tolerance among Americans for gays. In May, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americas—including 59 percent of independents—supported same-sex marriage. An earlier Gallup poll showed that a majority of Republicans supports allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
Showcasing his faith could boost Perry in a nomination contest where a recent poll showed 18 percent of Republicans unwilling to support a Mormon, the faith professed by two leading candidates, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney.
But the danger of Perry aligning himself so closely with religious activists is twofold: First, it risks alienating many moderates, including those in a Republican Party uneasy at the overt inclusion of religion in politics. The prayer session drew hundreds of protestors who marched outside the stadium, holding signs that read "Keep your religion out of government" and "Keep church and state separate."
But more importantly, defining himself as a social conservative could draw attention away from 10-year tenure as governor of Texas—a resume that includes a job-creation record that would be the envy of his GOP rivals. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve, the state created about half the jobs total nationwide in the two years after the recession ended in June 2009.
Although conservatives may still care about social issues, polls show they—like other voters—are overwhelmingly focused on the economy.
Perry, of course, still has plenty of time to tout his fiscal conservative record. And the strength of his candidacy relies in large part on his ability to attract both social and fiscal conservatives. But The Response is just one of several recent instances that have highlighted Perry's social conservatism: The governor, after initially suggesting states should be allowed to determine on their own whether to allow gay marriage, recently said he supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and abortion.
At the end of the Houston prayer rally, when the governor took the stage for the second time, Perry again struck a decidedly apolitical, but overtly religious, tone, saying he hoped the day “will begin a renewal of nation."
"I sincerely pray our willing to stand in the public square to acknowledge the God who made us will inspire others to open minds and hearts to his love,” Perry continued. “I pray there will be families who welcome God back into their homes."
Now the question is how that message will play with the millions of voters who Perry will be asking to welcome him into their homes—literally and virtually—if he decides to launch a White House campaign.