A Look At The Values Voter Summit

Melissa Block talks to NPR's Don Gonyea. He reports from the Values Voter Summit, a conference of social conservatives.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In recent elections, social conservatives have played a significant role in the Republican Party. And in this presidential campaign season, they're once again flexing their muscles and pushing their issues despite the focus on the economy. A big annual conference is under way here in Washington, D.C., called the Values Voter Summit. And presidential hopefuls are making their case to voters there, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, who spoke this afternoon.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: There is no voter in America who is not a value voter. It's just a question of whose values that they share.

BLOCK: But Governor Perry's outreach to social conservatives was overshadowed today by remarks from the pastor who introduced him. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea is at the summit. He joins us now. And, Don, who is the pastor we're talking about? What did he say?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: He is Dr. Robert Jeffress. He's the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, of course, from Texas. And as we walked in before Governor Perry's speech, there were people who were with the pastor who were handing out these blue press releases. And let me tell you what the headline says. It says: Southern Baptist Convention Leader to Endorse Perry at Values Voter Summit. The subhead is: Jeffress to Draw Sharp Contrast Between Perry and Romney. Romney, of course, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

They even gave to us a little bit of prepared text of the introduction to Governor Perry that Pastor Jeffress would give. He said, to get into this prepared text, I believe that in Rick Perry we have a candidate who is a proven leader, a true conservative and a committed follower of Christ. His actual words were stronger than that. Give a listen.

DR. ROBERT JEFFRESS: Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person? Or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JEFFRESS: Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative, and he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. Would you join me in welcoming the governor of the great state of Texas, Rick Perry?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, APPLAUSE AND MUSIC)

GONYEA: Again, the key change there, the word genuine follower of Christ. Later, there was a scrum of reporters talking to Pastor Jeffress. He was asked if he was talking about Mormonism there and Romney. And he said yes, Mormonism is a cult.

BLOCK: What has Governor Perry's reaction been to these remarks from Robert Jeffress today?

GONYEA: There were a couple of reactions. It kind of came in stages. Again, a lot of questions. His press secretary, Mark Miner, first reacted by saying the governor is not in a position to judge what the pastor meant. Now, I can tell you that as Governor Perry took the stage, his reaction was to say to the crowd: Didn't Pastor Jeffress hit it out of the park? So he was clearly thrilled by the introduction. Again, we don't know if he heard the exact words or if he had seen this press release. Later, the Perry campaign said the governor does not think Mormonism is a cult.

BLOCK: Now, Don, as Rick Perry has slipped in support in the polls, some of that support has shifted to businessman Herman Cain, who is often a crowd favorite at events like this one today. Let's listen to a bit of what Herman Cain told the crowd today.

HERMAN CAIN: We have an illegal immigration crisis. We have a foggy foreign policy crisis. We have a moral crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CAIN: And we have a severe deficiency of leadership crisis in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: Sounds like he was pretty well-received, Don.

GONYEA: He was very well-received. I have to tell you when Governor Perry came out - again, it was a very friendly reception - lots of applause. When Herman Cain took the stage, and then as he continued his speech, he blew the roof off the place. He joked that when you enter the top tier of candidates, there is suddenly a target on your back. But he was acting very much like a top-tier candidate and enjoying every minute of it. And people love him here.

BLOCK: And briefly, Don, Mitt Romney speaks tomorrow at the Values Voter Summit. When do you expect to hear?

GONYEA: We expect to hear him talk about the way his life exemplifies the kind of values that they talk about here. Again, we don't know if he'll mention his Mormonism, or if he'll respond directly to what Pastor Jeffress said. But we'll find all that out in the morning.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Don Gonyea, thanks so much.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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