SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Every year, social conservatives from around the country gather in Washington, D.C. for the Values Voters Summit. It's sponsored by the Family Research Council, and in presidential election years, it is considered a must stop for Republican candidates.
Five candidates appeared at the Summits opening yesterday, but the speech getting the most attention was delivered by a Dallas pastor who introduced Texas Governor Rick Perry. NPR National political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Dr. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas took the stage to endorse his fellow Texan, Rick Perry, but he was also there - as a pre-speech press release his staff handed out stated - to draw sharp contrast between Perry and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. Jeffress beganâ¦
DR. ROBERT JEFFRESS: Those of us who are evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make.
GONYEA: The pastor said it's a choice between a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or leadership; one who is a conservative out of convenience or one out of deep conviction. He didn't mention Romney by name, but it was clear he was talking about Romney and Romney's religion, Mormonism.
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?
GONYEA: Governor Perry then took the stage.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I want to say thank you for a rousing introduction. He knocked it out of the park, as we like to say, and...
GONYEA: Governor Perry delivered a variation on his standard stump speech, but it was Jeffress who was making news. Talking to a group of reporters in the hallway, he was asked to clarify what he was saying about Romney. He said the former Massachusetts governor isn't a Christian. On multiple occasions in that exchange, he called Mormonism a cult. Then, on CNN, he repeated himself.
JEFFRESS: That's not some fanatical comment. That's been the historic position of evangelical Christianity. The Southern Baptist convention, which is the largest protestant denomination in the world, has officially labeled Mormonism as a cult.
GONYEA: The Perry campaign responded saying the governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult. This audience has long been suspicious of the former Massachusetts governor on social issues. He once supported abortion rights, but is now anti-abortion rights. Many evangelicals simply don't believe him. One prominent Romney supporter who was there was U.S. senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. He said Romney has a story to tell about personal values and about his family and his time in public life.
SENATOR ROY BLOUNT: He lives the values that he talks about and exemplifies, and I think that is going to be clear to people who are at this meeting this week.
GONYEA: And while all of this was playing out, another candidate was preparing to speak - Atlanta businessman Herman Cain. In recent weeks, Rick Perry's poll numbers have fallen and Cain's have risen significantly. He talked about his new prominence in the field.
HERMAN CAIN: You know, when you run for president, and you move into the top tier, I'm just saying, you get this bull's-eye on your back.
GONYEA: Cain is bracing himself for tougher scrutiny and attacks to come, both from his rival candidates and from the media, the kind of challenge Romney and Perry are already used to. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.