Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on rival Rick Perry to denounce comments made by a supporter who likened his Mormon religion to a “cult.”
“I would call upon Governor Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks,” Romney said at a news conference in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
The Reverend Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas, called Mormonism “a cult” and said Romney is “not a Christian” in remarks to reporters after introducing Texas Governor Perry to an Oct. 7 meeting of social conservatives.
“I just don’t believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country,” Romney told reporters today.
The renewed attention to his Mormon faith has threatened to throw Romney off his economic message as he has worked to win over party leaders like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who appeared with Romney at today’s news conference to announce his endorsement.
Some evangelical voters, a critical part of the Republican base, don’t believe that Mormons are Christians because they use the Book of Mormon as a holy text along with the King James bible. Their opposition helped end Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2008.
Christie today dismissed those concerns as irrelevant to Romney’s qualifications for president.
“These types of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody’s ability to lead,” he said at the news conference with Romney. “Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president.”
Mark Miner, a Perry spokesman, brushed aside the question of disavowing Jeffress and sought to link the health-care plan Romney pushed as governor of Massachusetts with the federal law that President Barack Obama backed and that Republicans want to repeal.
“Governor Perry is going to focus his campaign on improving the economy and creating jobs,” Miner said in an e-mailed statement. “Mitt Romney’s comments are a distraction from the fact that Romneycare served as a blueprint for Obamacare.”
Romney put the responsibility on Perry for Jeffress’s selection as a speaker at the Oct. 7 Values Voter Summit.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose group was one of those organizing the gathering in Washington, said in a previously released statement that Jeffress “was suggested to us as a possible introductory speaker because he serves as pastor of one of the largest churches in Texas. We sent the request to the Perry campaign which then signed off on the request.”
Romney, embarking on his second presidential run, and his Republican rivals are competing to persuade voters they are best-suited to challenge Obama on the economy. The issue is the focus of tonight’s debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, co-sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, which will be broadcast on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, WBIN-TV in New Hampshire and on Bloomberg.com and WashingtonPost.com.
Christie’s announcement may add momentum to Romney’s effort to clear the Republican field by positioning himself as the most electable in the race against Obama.
“This is not someone who just decided to run for president off the back of an envelope,” Christie said. “This is somebody who has thought and listened and planned for a good long period of time about what you would do if he was given the honor of being president.”
Christie’s announcement last week that he wouldn’t mount his own presidential bid dashed the hopes of Republican leaders and donors who had sought an alternative to Romney and the other candidates seeking the nomination.
Christie told reporters on a conference call after today’s endorsement that he decided to back Romney last week and the details of the announcement were worked out when he and his wife, Mary Pat, hosted Romney and his wife at their Mendham home on Oct. 8.
The governor said he was attracted by Romney’s pledge on his first day to issue all U.S. states automatic waivers from implementing Obama’s health-care overhaul and also to rein in the National Labor Relations Board. He said Romney has a good mix of executive experience in the private- and public-sectors.
“We’ve seen what it’s like to have a legislator with no executive experience,” Christie said. “Another four years with President Obama is not what our party or our country needs.”
Christie said he doesn’t anticipate being asked to join the Romney ticket as vice presidential candidate and intends to remain in New Jersey. He didn’t say no when asked twice whether he would accept the position if asked.
The New Jersey governor said he’s ready to travel the U.S. in support of Romney and has urged his backers and party leaders in New Jersey and other states to follow his lead.
The tough-talking Christie has won praise from anti-tax Tea Party activists for cutting the New Jersey state budget. His support could help give Romney credibility among fiscal conservatives who have yet to fully embrace his candidacy.
“He’s a man who has a following of a lot of folks across this country, and so when he indicated a willingness to join my team I could not be more pleased,” said Romney, who called Christie “an American hero.”
Aides to Perry praised Christie, while playing down the significance of his endorsement.
“Governor Perry has the utmost respect for Governor Christie and looks forward to his help unseating President Obama next year,” said Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who staked his campaign strategy on winning the New Hampshire primary, also dismissed the importance of Christie’s choice.
“New Hampshire is always won and lost based upon votes, not endorsements,” Huntsman told reporters after an appearance at a senior center in Hanover. “I’m hoping for people’s vote in this state. I’m not looking for endorsements. That’s the way that races are won at the end of the day.”
Several of Christie’s richest backers switched their allegiance to Romney last week, including Home Depot Inc. co-founder Ken Langone, a Christie backer, billionaire supermarket executive John Catsimatidis and hedge-fund giant Paul Singer.
Roughly a dozen major Republican donors, who had been uncommitted, are “revving up” to help Romney, said Georgette Mosbacher, a prominent Republican fundraiser who signed up to back him after previously supporting Christie.
“He’s been running for eight years,” said Mosbacher. “We know who Romney is; there’s not going to be any surprises.”
A shortened primary calendar has sped up the pace of the 2012 campaign. A decision by Florida Republicans to move up their contest to Jan. 31 is likely to push the first round of voting in Iowa’s caucuses into early January as well as New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.