Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said religious differences shouldn’t divide Republicans and urged civility in the campaign for the party’s 2012 presidential nomination.
“Poisonous language had never advanced our cause,” the former Massachusetts governor said at a Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., attended by evangelical Christians, an important voting bloc in the Republican nominating contests. “Decency and civility is a value, too.”
Romney’s Mormon religion was termed a “cult” Friday by supporter of rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry and rival Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, have slipped in the polls of the Republican race, while support for businessman Herman Cain has increased.
Romney focused most of his comments on the economy and jobs, criticizing Democratic President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program, including the cash-for-clunkers program that subsidized car owners who replaced their automobiles with more fuel efficient models.
“That ended up costing $24,000 for every car,” Romney said. Obama also inherited an economy with a “triple-A bond rating” that has now been downgraded, Romney said.
The loudest cheers from audience came when Romney said 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 the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the U.S., and return the law state jurisdiction.
Romney supported legal abortion and advocated for gay rights when he began his political career in Massachusetts with a failed 1994 bid to unseat then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and when he won the state’s 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.
Perry, whose campaign distanced itself from his supporter’s comment about Mormonism, yesterday focused much of his speech to the summit 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.”
Cain drew standing ovations Friday when 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.”
Bachmann said the tea party movement, pushing for significantly limited government, would join with “pro-family” contingents, 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,” she said. “Let’s finally have one of us in the White House.”
She called for overhauling “America’s welfare dependence,” and highlighted her efforts to repeal the health- care law and toughened financial regulations that Obama pushed through Congress last year.
The annual gathering focuses on efforts to “champion traditional values,” limit government and cut federal spending. This year’s Republican contest elevates the significance of this and similar events for candidates seeking support from the evangelical movement, a major force within the party since it helped promote Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
The candidates are also vying for the backing of Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska governor who announced Oct. 5 that while she had decided against a bid for the White House, she will seek to influence the outcome of the party’s race.
Palin’s decision not to run is “certainly good news for all those candidates who are really relying upon this constituency as a sort of a booster rocket -- and that would be Bachmann and Cain in particular,” said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “She was the 800- pound gorilla that might get in and did not.”
Proving socially conservative credentials on issues such as abortion, traditional marriage and school prayer won’t be enough for candidates this year, Reed said. Values voters will also place an emphasis on the economy, jobs and which candidate has the best chance of beating Obama.
“All the polling shows that evangelicals’ No. 1 concern right now tracks that of the electorate at large — namely, jobs and the economy,” Reed said. “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.”
Self-described evangelicals accounted for 44 percent of Republican primary voters in the 2008 campaign, according to exit polling.
“It would be very, very difficult” for a Republican to win the presidency without the backing of these voters, said Lee Edwards, a political historian at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which is among the summit’s co-sponsors. “These voters have to be not just supportive, but enthusiastically supportive.”
Evangelical voters “want the most conservative candidate that can win,” said Richard Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville. “Mr. 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.”
Attendee Peter Wolfgang, 41, of Hartford, Connecticut, said he’s confident that several candidates in the Republican field could defeat Obama.
“I want to see someone who defends human life, believes marriage is between a man and a woman, and will defend instead of threaten freedom of religion,” he said.
With the exception of Romney, all the candidates are well positioned with these voters, said Craig Shirley, a political consultant and Reagan historian in Alexandria, Virginia.
“If you polled the segment right now, I would say it’s up for grabs,” Shirley said.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas who introduced Perry at the summit, later applied the “cult” label to Mormonism in comments to reporters.
Jeffress described Romney as “a good moral person, but someone who is part of a cult.”
Perry spokesman Mark Miner in a statement said the governor “does not believe Mormonism is a cult.”
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