The American public got to see Gov. Rick Perry’s outreach to religious conservatives at the giant “Prayerpalooza” rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston a few days before he announced for president. A far more private but equally important plea for their support was delivered on a Texas ranch last weekend.
At a gathering of uncommitted social and evangelical conservatives at the Hill Country spread of mega-donor James Leininger, Perry spent several hours patiently answering queries on a range of issues, from his stand on immigration reform to the depth of his commitment to oppose abortion, people who were in attendance told The Texas Tribune.
During one exchange, Perry was asked — politely but directly — to assure the group that nothing embarrassing in his personal life would emerge during the 2012 presidential campaign.
With first lady Anita Perry at his side, the governor said that would not happen.
“I can assure you that there is nothing in my life that will embarrass you if you decide to support me for president,” Perry said, according to one of the participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Should he win the 2012 nomination, Perry also promised to select a vice presidential running mate who is opposed to abortion, the participant said.
Campaign spokesman Mark Miner said he was not aware of the specific questions asked at the meeting but noted that Perry is accustomed to scrutiny.
"The governor takes questions at many events he goes to and he answers them appropriately and honestly. He gets questions whether it's public meetings or private meetings," Miner said. "I'm sure any questions asked there have been asked somewhere else."
The gathering inside a rectangular tent on Leininger’s Hill Country estate was part of Perry's full-court press for support from evangelical voters, who make up an oversize chunk of the GOP electorate. About 150 to 200 social conservatives from around the country attended the event, people who were there said, and included some of the top names in the Christian conservative movement: radio host James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Richard Viguerie, a writer and elder statesman of the social conservative movement; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Representatives of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List also attended.
David Barton, a former Texas Republican Party official and Christian historian, helped organize the meeting but did not attend, participants said.
Perkins confirmed to the Tribune that he attended but said he could not share details of the gathering. He said there will be other meetings like it with other candidates.
“It was an off-the-record, private meeting. It was informational, [for] people that had not met him before,” Perkins said. “It was the first in a series of meetings that are going to take place with some of the candidates that have requested to meet with social conservative leaders.”
Perkins also said Perry would participate in a straw poll at the 2012 Values Voter Summit. While the Texas governor is not the only candidate courting social conservatives, Perkins said Perry knows their language and is clearly comfortable talking to them.
“He speaks with ease on these issues. It’s very natural for him," Perkins said. "He’s not reading a campaign speech."
Participants who spoke to the Tribune said access was tightly controlled. IDs were checked upon entering Leininger's property, and participants were issued credentials at the beginning of the event Friday; they had to give them back after the event ended that evening. They went through the same routine the next day.
Perry's top strategist, Dave Carney, attended the gathering and briefly spoke, but participants said the event did not have the feel of a choreographed campaign event. They described the mood as low-key and relaxed, even though many were eager to question the the GOP's new front-runner.
Perry spent about six hours at the event on Friday and another two hours the next day before heading to Iowa for a brief campaign swing, sources said.
"What's this guy do good? Retail," one of the participants said. "You do retail with 150 people from the faith-based, cultural universe, press the flesh, take pictures. Whoever's idea it was, it was brilliant."
Perry was asked to give his detailed views and thoughts on a variety of personal questions and hot-button social issues, including his recent back surgery, immigration, gay marriage, hate crimes, the extent of his anti-abortion views and the controversy over his 2007 executive order mandating that girls get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease and the leading cause of cervical cancer (the Legislature overturned the order).
Perry repeated the answer that he first gave to questions about the HPV flap after he announced for president on Aug. 13: He erred by trying to make the vaccine mandatory.
Anita Perry also faced questions, the source said. One questioner wanted to know if the first lady shared her husband's conservative views on gay marriage and abortion. She assured the participants that she did.
"It was respectful but purposeful," the participant told the Tribune. "The questions were direct."
While job creation is the chief campaign message, winning evangelical voters is a major part of Perry's nomination strategy. Polls show they make up some 40 percent of the electorate in some states, and social conservatives are expected to play a huge role in the outcome of the race in first-test Iowa, where Perry is giving native daughter Michele Bachmann a run for her money. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
Research published last weekend by the Palm Beach Post shows that "white, born again evangelicals" also make up more than a third of the vote in the GOP electorate in Florida, a key state that is expected to draw a lot of attention from Perry.
Perkins, the Family Research Council president, said religious conservatives will increasingly become comfortable with the Texas governor once they get to know him and examine his record in detail.
"I think he has the answers that are satisfactory when those issues are brought up," Perkins said. "I think he is addressing them with the leaders in that community and as that information disseminates, I think he will be fine.”
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