HOUSTON – Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent a strong message to the nation's evangelicals Saturday: he is a member of the important constituency for Republicans that he soon may call upon to help him secure the GOP presidential nomination.
The state's longest serving governor hosted what he called a national day of prayer, an event at Reliant Arena that drew roughly 30,000 people and that was broadcast on cable Christian channels and the Internet nationwide, including in at least 1,000 churches.
"Father, our heart breaks for America," Perry said in 12 minutes of remarks that included prayer and Bible passages — but no direct mention of politics or his presidential plans. "We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us."
He asked Christians to turn to God for answers to the nation's troubles, and asked the audience to pray for President Barack Obama — though he did not use the Democratic incumbent's name — as well as for the American troops killed in the weekend attack on a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan.
The moment gave Perry a national spotlight before a pivotal voting group in the GOP nomination fight — in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina in particular — as he nears a decision on whether to run for president. His entrance into the field could shake up the contest because Perry could attract both social and economic conservatives at a time when the GOP electorate is unsettled with the current slate of candidates. Many have been campaigning for months and are trying to break out of the pack.
As Perry held court in Houston, for instance, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann were holding multiple campaign events each day in Iowa ahead of next weekend's test vote, a straw poll that is a barometer for a campaign's organizational strength five months before the state's leadoff caucuses. Both have a lot riding on the outcome.
Perry has been talking with potential donors, GOP operatives and party leaders about a possible run. But he has been tightlipped about just when he would announce a decision, though he plans to visit at least one early-voting state — South Carolina — over the next week.
He plans to keep what aides say is a long-held commitment to headline a conservative conference in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 13, as well as meet with activists in the state scheduled to host the South's first primary. The trip will put Perry in touch with voters and activists who would be influential to a Republican primary campaign, much like the Houston event Saturday did.
Ministers long have been a valuable constituency in the early nominating campaign, especially in Iowa, where they formed an influential network for 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee's caucus victory, and this year's candidates are trying to make inroads. Bachmann, for one, announced the endorsement of her by 100 Iowa clergy Friday; the tea party favorite meets regularly with pastors when she campaigns in Iowa.
Perry's audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry's idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians.
"We feel that God moved on him to do this. It will be read by the enemy, the political enemy, as a tool to win votes," said Gwen Courkamp of Houston, who plans to vote for Perry if he runs for president.
The governor also earned high marks from attendee Justine Schaefer, who said: "He'd get my vote ... Today really impressed me. He showed that he's sensitive to the Lord's leading to have this."
Critics argued the event — called The Response — inappropriately blended politics and religion.
Perry insisted that the event had no political motivation, though he did say during his remarks: "We pray for our nation's leaders, Lord, for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors, that you would inspire them in these difficult times."
The other speakers focused primarily on prayer and redemption, though politics seeped in at times, tied to social issue policy. Dozens of people throughout the daylong event decried legalized abortion, while some also condemned gay marriage, although far fewer.
Protesters gathered outside the arena to condemn the event.
"The brand of Christianity being offered today is one of fear, and we want to let people know that God loves everyone, not to be afraid," said Dan DeLeon, a pastor from the United Church of Christ in College Station, who wore his robe in near-100-degree heat.
Rodney Hinds, who drove to Houston from Amarillo, waved a sign at traffic demanding "Pastor Perry Must Resign" and said: "He abused the power of his office by calling this event from his office as governor."
Whether that's true or not, this much is clear: Perry may have laid down a marker on Saturday with social conservatives that would allow him to enter the race as a candidate focused on jobs, but with credibility with values voters.
"He has the best record in the field on jobs, and doesn't have to get off message beefing up bona fides on social issues, since they are firmly established," said Mary Matalin, a former adviser during both Bush presidencies.
Given Texas' recent uptick in jobs, that combination could make Perry a potentially strong challenger to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who leads in national polls, has business credentials but leaves cultural conservatives questioning his sincerity on their issues.