With the chorus of Republicans and conservatives condemning anti-Mormonism growing louder, the Mitt Romney campaign moved Tuesday to use the comments of a Southern Baptist leader, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, against GOP presidential rival Rick Perry.
Just hours before the two men were set to face off at a debate in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney called on the Texas governor to disavow comments from an evangelical pastor who says Mr. Romney isn't a Christian and that Mormonism is a cult.
"Gov. Perry selected an individual to introduce him, who then used religion as a basis for which he said he would endorse Gov. Perry, and as a reason to not support me," the former Massachusetts governor said. "I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor."
The Perry campaign dismissed the Romney challenge as an attempt to "detract attention" from a new report on White House records that show how the Obama administration used the Massachusetts health care law as a model for the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Perry said Friday he disagrees with the comments of Mr. Jeffress, who introduced him last week at Washington's Values Voters Summit.
Since then, Republicans from Karl Rove to Ralph Reed have weighed in on the topic, most urging Mr. Perry to more clearly distance himself the Dallas pastor.
Former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who has endorsed Mr. Romney and spent Monday campaigning in the Granite State with the candidate, said Tuesday those who say they can't support a Mormon candidate are guilty of "hate speech."
"That sort of bigotry and, really, hate language is totally inappropriate," Mr. Gregg said in an interview on The Washington Times-affiliated "America's Morning News" radio show.
Other contenders in the Republican field, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum, have strongly denounced the remarks.
Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman who has emerged as a surprise threat to Mr. Romney's front-runner status in the field, said he would not comment on the flap — but the former Godfather's Pizza executive predicted in an interview in The Washington Times earlier this year that Southern Republicans would have a hard time supporting a Mormon.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who announced Tuesday he is backing Mr. Romney, said: "Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."
But Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council Action, which co-sponsored the Values Voters Summit, said some of the criticism of the Texas governor is unfair.
"I know how that all unfolded; Rick Perry had nothing to do with that. The campaign did not select this pastor to do the introduction; he was recommended. We sent it by the campaign and the campaign said, 'Sure, that's fine.' So it wasn't some kind of effort from Rick Perry to try to interject that into this. That's ludicrous to suggest that Rick Perry was trying to inject Mormonism into the presidential race," Mr. Perkins said.
Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed said Tuesday the flap over Mormonism won't matter to voters over the long haul.
"Evangelical voters specifically and Americans generally know that they're not electing a pastor ... they're electing the CEO of America," Mr. Reed said in an interview on "America's Morning News."
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