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Romney Calls for Civility, Unity Among Religions at Republican Conference

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was labeled a cult member last week, said religious differences shouldn’t divide Republicans and urged civility in party’s 2012 presidential nomination process.

“Poisonous language does not advance our cause,” the former Massachusetts governor and current frontrunner in polls, said yesterday at the “Values Voter Summit” in Washington. The conference is held by evangelical Christians, an important voting bloc in the Republican nominating contests. “Decency and civility is a value, too,” he said.

Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas, told reporters that Romney, a Mormon, is “a good, moral person, but someone who is part of a cult.” Jeffress, introduced Romney’s rival Rick Perry, the Texas governor, at the summit on Oct. 7.

Perry “does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” spokesman Mark Miner in a statement. Romney didn’t directly address that comment yesterday.

Romney’s religion and his record favoring same-sex marriage and abortion rights while governor -- both of which he now opposes -- became a focus at the summit.

The annual gathering focuses on efforts to “champion traditional values,” limit government and cut federal spending. Self-described evangelicals accounted for 44 percent of Republican primary voters in the 2008 campaign, according to exit polling.

Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum dismissed questions about Romney’s religion.

‘Theologian in Chief’

“I’m not running for theologian in chief,” Cain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” today. “I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that,” he said, adding “it’s not going to boost this economy.”

Bachmann, speaking on the same CNN program, called the issue “inconsequential,” and said “to make a big issue out of this is ridiculous.”

“I think what the real focus is here, is on religious tolerance,” Bachmann said, “This is not what people are talking about.”

Gingrich, speaking on the CBS “Face the Nation” program, said the minister’s comments about Mormonism were “inappropriate.” On “Fox News Sunday,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he doesn’t think Mormonism is a cult and that “every Mormon I know is a good and decent person.”

Ron Paul Wins

Representative Ron Paul of Texas, also seeking the 2012 Republican nomination, won a straw poll held at the summit with 37 percent of the votes cast, according to Paul’s campaign. Businessman Herman Cain received 23 percent of the votes, followed by former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 16 percent, and Perry and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann each with 8 percent. Romney won the 2007 straw poll with 27.6 percent of the votes, according to the Family Research Council, which organizes the summit.

Summit attendee Ellen Elmore, 62, of St. Louis, said Romney’s record may be used against him in the presidential election if he becomes the Republican Party’s candidate.

“I think there are two Romneys: One is what he says and one is what he does, and we never know which one we are getting,” Elmore said, adding that she voted for Romney in the 2008 Republican primaries.

Abortion, Gay Rights

Romney supported legal abortion and advocated for gay rights when he won the Massachusetts governorship in 2002. When he sought the 2008 presidential nomination, his position on both issues had changed: He supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and opposed abortion rights.

Romney drew the loudest cheers when he said during his speech that he would support the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, and when he called on the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision making abortion legal in the U.S.. He said he wanted to return the law to state jurisdiction.

Elmore said Romney switching his position showed he was “very plastic, robotic and a typical politician,” who “expects us to vote for him because he’s next in line.”

Elmore said she would pick either Cain or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the party’s candidate.

Bill Westerling, 73, of Saint Charles, Illinois, said he was leaning in favor of Romney “regardless of his religion, because of his experience” as a former governor and a business executive.

Economy and Jobs

Romney focused most of his comments on the economy and jobs, criticizing President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program. Perry also focused on the economy, spotlighting his call for lower taxes on businesses and a freeze on pending government regulations, as well as promoting Texas’s job-growth record during his almost 11 years as governor.

“I’ve listened to thousands of Americans and they are not under any illusions about the current state of our country,” Perry said. “They know our first order of business to getting Americans working again is sending our current president to the private sector.”

Perry has dropped in opinion polls after drawing attacks from his Republican opponents in recent debates. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents taken Sept. 29-Oct. 2 gave Perry 16 percent, a decline of 13 percentage points since early September. Romney led the Republican field with 25 percent. Perry was tied for second in the survey with Cain.

Tax Simplification

Cain drew standing ovations at the summit as he stressed his opposition to abortion rights, his support of traditional marriage and his pledge to simplify the tax code. He also chastised the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. He said the demonstrators are “anti-capitalism” and “anti-free-market.”

Rival Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, said the Tea Party movement’s push for significantly limited government would join with independent voters and disaffected Democrats to defeat Obama in next year’s general election.

“This is not the election to choose a moderate or a compromise candidate,” she said. “Conservatives, we can have it all this year.”

Proving socially conservative credentials on issues such as abortion, traditional marriage and school prayer won’t be enough for candidates this year, said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“The evangelicals want to win, and they’re smart enough to know that to win you’ve got to have a compelling message on the economy,” Reed said.

Obama “has done a better job of energizing and focusing evangelicals and other social conservatives in this country than I thought anyone could ever do,” said Richard Land, leader of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention.

To contact the reporters on this story: Catherine Dodge in Washington at cdodge1@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net; Gopal Ratnam in Washington at gratnam1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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