HOUSTON (AP) — Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent a strong message to the nation’s evangelicals Saturday: He is a member of the important constituency for Republicans that he soon may call upon to help him secure the GOP presidential nomination.
The state’s longest-serving governor hosted what he called a national day of prayer, an event at Reliant Stadium that drew roughly 30,000 people and that was broadcast on cable Christian channels and the Internet nationwide, including in at least 1,000 churches.
“Father, our heart breaks for America,” Mr. Perry said in 12 minutes of remarks that included prayer and Bible passages — but no direct mention of politics or his presidential plans. “We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.”
He asked Christians to turn to God for answers to the nation’s troubles, and he asked the audience to pray for President Obama — though he did not use the Democratic incumbent’s name — as well as for the American troops killed in the weekend attack on a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan.
The moment gave Mr. Perry a national spotlight before a pivotal voting group in the GOP nomination fight — in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina in particular — as he nears a decision on whether to run for president. His entrance into the field could shake up the contest because Perry could attract both social and economic conservatives at a time when the GOP electorate is unsettled with the current slate of candidates. Many have been campaigning for months and are trying to break out of the pack.
As Mr. Perry held court in Houston, for instance, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann were holding multiple campaign events each day in Iowa ahead of next weekend’s test vote, a straw poll that is a barometer for a campaign’s organizational strength five months before the state’s leadoff caucuses. Both have a lot riding on the outcome.
Mr. Perry has been talking with potential donors, GOP operatives and party leaders about a possible run. But he has been tight-lipped about just when he would announce a decision, though he plans to visit at least one early-voting state — South Carolina — over the next week.
He plans to keep what aides say is a long-held commitment to headline a conservative conference in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 13, as well as meet with activists in the state scheduled to host the South’s first primary. The trip will put Mr. Perry in touch with voters and activists who would be influential in a Republican primary campaign, much like the Houston event Saturday did.
Ministers long have been a valuable constituency in the early nominating campaign, especially in Iowa, where they formed an influential network for 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee’s caucus victory, and this year’s candidates are trying to make inroads. Mrs. Bachmann, for one, announced the endorsement of her by 100 Iowa clergy Friday; a tea party favorite, she meets regularly with pastors when she campaigns in Iowa.
Mr. Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music onstage. And Mr. Perry himself huddled onstage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Mr. Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians.
“We feel that God moved on him to do this. It will be read by the enemy, the political enemy, as a tool to win votes,” said Gwen Courkamp of Houston, who plans to vote for Mr. Perry if he runs for president.
The governor also earned high marks from attendee Justine Schaefer, who said: “He’d get my vote. … Today really impressed me. He showed that he’s sensitive to the Lord’s leading to have this.”
Critics argued the event — called “The Response” — inappropriately blended politics and religion.
Mr. Perry insisted that the event had no political motivation, though he did say during his remarks, “We pray for our nation’s leaders, Lord, for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors, that you would inspire them in these difficult times.”