AUSTIN, Texas – Openly and deeply religious, Texas Gov. Rick Perry organized what seemed like a slam-dunk event for a politician in a state where religion and politics walk hand in hand: He would fill Houston's Reliant Stadium with fellow believers in a seven-hour session of Christian atonement by some of the nation's most conservative preachers, exhorting believers to pray about the nation's moral decline.
Since he set up the event scheduled for Saturday, however, Perry has become the most talked-about almost-candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential field. But with only 8,000 RSVPs for a stadium that seats 71,500 people, virtually no politicians planning to attend, and a slate of organizers who hold out-of-mainstream views on religious freedom, gay rights and even Adolf Hitler, the event has become a potentially risky gamble if Perry is serious about running for the White House.
Some conservatives suggested the overtly religious event, called "The Response," could distract from Perry's key selling points on the relatively successful Texas economy and could backfire in places like New Hampshire, the first primary state.
""One thing Republicans are going to demand this election is a candidate who can beat Barack Obama," said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who has worked for Perry opponents but is now unaligned. "The election is all about him. A candidate who establishes his identity on the fringe, talking about social and religious issues, when the economy is going over a cliff, risks marginalizing himself, becoming unacceptable to independents and unelectable. That would be the kiss of death."
Castellanos added: "Perry should be trying to establish recognition as the minister of job creation. This leads him to build an identity as just a minister."
But Mark McKinnon, a GOP consultant and former aide to President George W. Bush, said success will be measured in how Perry handles it.
"He has quickly become a favorite of the Tea Party types and social conservatives," McKinnon said. "The question will be whether Perry can calibrate his remarks in a way that makes him appealing to a broader audience."
The gathering could give the Texas governor a chance to further demonstrate his bona fides with the Republican Party's social conservatives, who are being aggressively courted by several candidates already in the race. Others worry a rally of Christian fundamentalism, and one involving several controversial religious organizations, could alienate independent voters and conservatives who are more focused on economic issues.
Perry is not expected to announce his decision on a presidential bid until sometime after the rally.
Perry, 61, began organizing the gathering in December. A month earlier, on the day Texas voters gave Perry a third full term in office, he told The Associated Press that he held many political views that were too extreme for a presidential candidate.
The sponsors of the rally hold similar views.
In a video invitation, Perry says it was inspired by the Old Testament Book of Joel, with an apocalyptic passage on God's army marching on the Israelites to punish them for their moral decline. Perry says America is facing a similar moral crisis today. In Joel, God calls on the Israelites to come together in a "sacred assembly" with "fasting, with weeping and with mourning." Perry said Americans should do the same at the gathering at Reliant Stadium, where the 2004 Super Bowl was held.
"Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting," Perry wrote in the invitation he sent to all of the other governors in the United States, members of Congress, the Obama administration and the Texas Legislature, among others.
But only one of those politicians, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, has said he will attend. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is running for Senate, and state House Speaker Joe Straus, who is Jewish, have declined. About 8,000 people have registered for the free event, leaving the prospect of 64,000 empty seats in the stadium. By comparison, nearby Lakewood Church — the nation's largest megachurch, headlined by the Rev. Joel Osteen — averages 30,000 worshippers a week.
The American Family Association is paying for the event — no public money is involved. The evangelical association is a nonprofit that describes itself as being "on the front lines of America's culture war" and was previously known as the National Federation for Decency. The group, based in Tupelo, Miss., publishes a magazine and operates 200 radio stations. The group condemns homosexuality, opposes abortion rights and argues that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom only applies to Christians.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the association a hate group for spreading misinformation about homosexuals and transgender people. Perry has dismissed such characterizations and appeared on a Christian radio show with the association's president, Tim Wildmon.
The prayer gathering "is not political, it's not about promoting an organization. ... It's about people calling out to God," Perry said on July 14. "I want God helping me, guiding me, giving me direction."
Bryan Fischer, the association's director of issue analysis, said after the massacre in Norway that suspect Anders Breivik was the Charles Manson of his country. But Fischer went on to argue that Breivik's opposition to multiculturalism had some merit.
"Much of his analysis of cultural trends in Europe and the danger created by Islamic immigration and infiltration is accurate," Fischer wrote. "Breivik's angst was caused by the presence of so many Muslims in Norway and Europe, which he correctly observes is leading to 'cultural annihilation.'"
Another group sponsoring the event is the International House of Prayer, a Christian missionary group based in Kansas City, Mo. The church's founder, Mike Bickle, has called Oprah Winfrey's tolerance and popularity a precursor to the apocalypse, and he has called on Christians to use "spiritual warfare" against legalized abortion and gay rights.
Another key pastor speaking at "The Response" is televangelist John Hagee. GOP presidential nominee John McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement in 2008 after a recording from the late 1990s surfaced in which the preacher suggested God sent Adolf Hitler to hunt Jews so that they would go to the Promised Land.
Perry said "The Response" is designed to focus on God, not politicians.
"There will be folks who think it's something else, that there are other motivations. But it's not about me," Perry said. "It's about Him."
Chris Tomlinson can be reached at www.twitter.com/cltomlinson
Henry C. Jackson can be reached at www.twitter.com/hjacksonap