Texas Governor Rick Perry burst onto the national political stage at a prayer rally in Houston today. Get ready -- he's no wallflower.
HOUSTON -- The days leading up to "The Response," Texas Gov. Rick Perry's prayer rally at Reliant Stadium, had looked a little grim for the governor and the event's organizers. Only about 7,000 people had confirmed that they would attend a venue that seats 71,500, and the controversial roster of sponsors -- including the American Family Association, which is labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- drew as much attention as the event's stated purpose of praying and fasting for the nation's improvement.
At least from the standpoint of attendance, though, things didn't turn out so bad. The consensus estimate put the crowd at around 30,000 people, and it was a diverse group of many backgrounds and ethnicities. So were the speakers. And while a number of them have a history of making extreme and ugly pronouncements, the general tenor of the event did not reflect that. (Which is not to say that people won't find cause for offense.) It was as much a Christian rock festival as anything else.
But what impact will it have on Perry's political fortunes? At least for now, that's hard to tell. The organizers, and the attendees I spoke to, insisted that politics didn't factor in the prayer rally, even as many of them expressed their strong support for Perry generally. "Too much emphasis is put on people -- the governor, the president," John Magee, a retired teacher, coach and financial adviser from Houston, told me. "The only one who can make sense out of this and heal our land is Jesus." But the large contingent of the national press in attendance was drawn by the expectation that Perry will soon enter the presidential race.
There was some doubt among the crowd about whether he would even appear. Just before noon, though, he walked out on stage to a roaring ovation. Perry's remarks were not overtly political, but neither did they avoid any allusion to politics. "Lord, we see discord at home, we see fear in the market place, we see discord in the halls of government," he declared. Perry read passages from Joel (2:12-17), Isaiah (40:28-31), and Ephesians (3:14-21); choked up while acknowledging the deaths of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday; and then brought things back around to the day's purpose. "You call on us to repent Lord," he said, "and this day is our response."
At the very end, Perry returned to the stage to thank the audience and sponsors. He didn't back away from the more controversial ones, pointedly thanking the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, which underwrote the million-dollar event. Perry made one final call to prayer, "for our nation, our leaders, and our president, that God will pour out His wisdom for them."
The bottom line: Perry came exactly as advertised. His overt religiosity is unlikely to hurt him -- indeed, could help him -- in the Republican primary. He'll present a vivid contrast to the current frontrunner, Mitt Romney. But beyond that, it's anyone's guess. I thought the day's shrewdest political insight came from Dr. Richard Land, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a sixth-generation Texan, who I bumped into in the hallway after Perry spoke. "If he runs, he'll be a strong candidate," Land told me. "He's a charismatic figure. I think about him on stage with the other candidates and he'll stand out. He's not a wallflower. But the most interesting question for me is whether the country is ready for somebody who looks and sounds like George W. Bush on steroids."