Perry Talks Tough to Values Voters

Perry woos conservatives and distances himself from a controversial endorser who calls Mormonism a "cult"

Rick Perry at Values Voter - Jonathan Ernst Reuters - banner.jpg

Conservatives are mad at Rick Perry, and he knows it.

In his speech to the Values Voter Summit on Friday, the Texas governor embraced a controversial Southern Baptist leader's rousing endorsement and detoured from his stump speech to talk border security, the issue that's most weakened him on his right flank.

Perry doesn't like to back down, and his campaign doesn't believe in changing course based on momentary freakouts. But they clearly recognize they have work to do to make him the conservative's ideal he hasn't quite turned out to be since getting into the presidential race.

Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor who introduced Perry to the crowd, sought to assure the group of cultural conservatives that Perry is one of them.

"When the smoke has cleared, those of us who are evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make, and the choice is this," Jeffress said. "Do we want a candidate who is skilled at rhetoric or one who is skilled at leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative of convenience, or one who is a conservative of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"

Jeffress has long been controversial. Speaking to reporters on Friday, he repeated his view that Mormonism is a "cult" and that Mitt Romney is not a Christian. It's a contention he previously aired during the former Massachusetts governor's 2008 primary campaign -- that's why reporters were asking him about it, and why it shouldn't have been news to Perry's campaign.

But Perry appeared to welcome Jeffress' support as a means of validating his social-conservative credentials. His campaign later issued a statement saying the candidate does not believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult.

Perry didn't directly address the stance of his that's troubled many social conservatives, his attempt to mandate that preteen girls in Texas be vaccinated for human papillomavirus. Nor did he mention the immigration law he supported that has most bothered conservative voters -- the one that made some illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at Texas universities.

But he showed up to talk to the values voters, and he looked at ease on stage. After a series of lackluster performances in GOP primary debates, that may be more important.

"As a border governor, I know firsthand the failure of our federal border policies," Perry said. "And I know the answer to those failures is not to grant amnesty to those who broke the law to come into this country."

He reiterated his call to leave open the option of sending U.S. troops into Mexico to fight the "narco-terrorists." He touted his signing of laws in Texas requiring photo ID to vote and denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and the $400 million he's budgeted for state-level border security operations.

Perry also paid tribute to the importance of social issues, taking an implicit swipe at Romney along the way. "For some candidates, pro-life is an election year strategy to follow the prevailing political winds," he said. "To me, it's about the absolute principle that every human being is entitled to life."

One audience member, Catherine Van Slyke, said before Perry's speech, she wasn't sure she could support him. But afterward, she was sold -- because, she said, he looked tough.

"Of course he's not going to be perfect, like any person," said Van Slyke, a saleswoman from Carmel, Ind. "But when this country is going down like the Titanic, we need somebody with proven results and proven success."

Perry, she said, had a "grit and determination" that reminded her of Ronald Reagan, or another notable movie star.

"He's like Clint Eastwood," she said. "He'll come in with guns blazing, and you know he's got the authority to do what he says he's going to do."

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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