AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And now I'm joined by Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Hi there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So, as we just heard, a new controversy for Rick Perry this weekend, after evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, who's a Perry supporter, said that Mormonism is a cult. And he did this when he was speaking with reporters at the Values Voter Summit. First, let me just play a clip of that tape.
ROBERT JEFFRESS: Mitt Romney's a good, moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.
CORNISH: Mara, I'm getting a little deja vu here in terms of the story of evangelicals having a problem with Romney's Mormon faith. How do you see this problem unfolding?
LIASSON: Well, it did come up four years ago. Certainly, this was a little bit of a distraction for Perry because Perry wants to be talking about his own message, which is, as he told the Values Voter Summit yesterday, that he, not Romney, is the authentic and conservative leader that the party needs. And he said he didn't agree with Pastor Jeffress that Mormonism is a cult. But you're right, Romney might have a problem here. This is a widespread view among evangelicals that Mormonism is not a true Christian religion. The question is will it be a problem for Romney as it was four years ago in places like Iowa and South Carolina, with large concentrations of evangelical Republican voters, or will the economy trump that this time along with the fact that Romney is simply more familiar now.
CORNISH: I also want to talk about fundraising because this past week, Rick Perry's campaign announced that the Texas governor raised more than $17 million since entering the race. So, even though it seems like he's had these sort of stumbles out of the gate, he still has the money to go hard for the nomination, right?
LIASSON: There's no doubt about that, but he has to do something more than just raise money. He is giving a policy speech next Friday - this is his first one. It's going to be on energy and jobs. And then on October 11th in Hanover, New Hampshire, he gets another chance - some people think it might be the last chance - to show that he can perform in a debate. So, he has a lot of work to do. The bar for him was very low when he got in. Remember, he was the instant front-runner. Now, the bar has gotten a lot higher.
CORNISH: At the same time, we've got this crunch to the primary calendar, right? There has been some late changes, putting more pressure on the candidates to increase their funding. Can you walk us through what is happening with the calendar and tell us which candidates stand to benefit from this?
LIASSON: Well, the calendar's been telescoped. Florida started a chain reaction by moving its primary up to January 31st. That caused the four states that are normally first in line to move their contests up. Iowa is starting off now on January 3rd. Before this happened, everybody was going to start in February. So, this should help Romney. It should help the candidate who is best prepared, who has the most money, the best organization. With voting starting earlier and less time between each primary, there's no chance to stumble and recover. And I think that really is the moral of this whole story for Perry. It's very hard to get in late. You have to have time to be bad candidate and get better and there's no time left.
CORNISH: Yeah, it's a real crunch. I mean, I think people had hoped they would not be spending Christmas or the holidays in Iowa this year.
LIASSON: Well, candidates and reporters might have thought that but the rest of the world probably doesn't care very much.
CORNISH: Mara, in the minute we have left, the Republican race, as you said, is sort of settling because of this crunch in the calendar. And we also had Sarah Palin and Chris Christie announcing their intentions to stay out of 2012. Is this the field that Republicans have got versus what they want?
LIASSON: Well, it certainly is the one they got. The Republican race is set. The pining for Christie and before him Mitch Daniels showed two things: one, Republicans wanted a tell-it-like-it-is candidate with a true conservative reform vision in the race. Many people thought Christie and Daniels would have been that. Romney is playing it very safe. And the second thing it shows is Republicans still haven't fallen in love with their front-runner. Romney seems to have a ceiling, about 25 percent in the polls. You know, in the last couple of weeks, Perry's lost half of his support and none of it went to Romney. He's just stuck where he is. And unless Perry can right himself, there really is no serious alternative to Romney. All the others right now are splitting what is essentially the anti-Romney vote. In that case, 25 or 30 percent might just be enough for Romney to squeak by and win and be the last man standing.
CORNISH: Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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