WASHINGTON — Republican White House hopeful Rick Perry tried to revive his campaign Friday but got dragged into a religious row and saw a plea to Christian voters drowned out by fast-rising longshot Herman Cain.
Perry, who exploded into the White House race in August but has since fallen back after wobbly debate performances, sought to win over evangelical Christian conservative voters, a crucial bloc in the party nominating contest.
His speech to the Values Voter Summit, touching conservative hot button issues including opposition to abortion, political freedoms, limited government, tax cuts and strong defense was politely received by around 3,000 delegates.
But a controversy over the man who introduced him, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress stole the headlines after his speech, and threatened to worsen Perry's already testy relations with Republican front runner Mitt Romney.
Jeffress was quoted as saying by the Politico website that he viewed Romney's religion, Mormonism, as a "cult" and did not believe the former Massachusetts governor was a Christian.
There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Perry camp.
But spokesman Robert Black told Politico that Perry did not share the views of Jeffress, who was picked by the conference organizers and not the governor to introduce him at the meeting.
Cain, an African American former pizza mogul who has managed an unlikely surge into the top tier of the candidates chasing the 2012 Republican party nomination, delivered a bravura speech, which had Christian voters rolling with laughter and cheering out loud.
"People are a little bit afraid that this longshot, may not be a longshot any longer!" Cain said, in a speech mixing soaring conservative rhetoric and blunt humor, which touched the crowd in a way that Perry's appearance did not.
He vowed to pursue a foreign policy of "peace through strength" and promised a new "clarity" towards US enemies including Iran, proposing a plan to upgrade a US missile defense system based on AEGIS destroyers.
Then, he said he would tell Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "Make my Day!" drawing one of a repeated series of standing ovations.
Cain also told delegates that as his campaign gathered momentum, he had faced a lot of questions from journalists, including the perennial "why are you running for president?"
"To be president ... what did I miss?" Cain joked. "I am not running to go to Disneyland," he told the cheering audience.
"America has problems. I am a problem solver. That is why I am running."
Cain is regarded by many political pundits as an extreme outsider in the race for the Republican nomination to take on Democrat President Barack Obama in the election in November 2012.
Several newspaper commentaries have questioned whether he is serious about mounting a full campaign.
But his strong performances in recent debates and television interviews have sparked his poll surge and he is a hot contender for the straw poll of Christian voters Saturday at the Washington summit.
Perry had earlier touted his job creation record, anti-abortion views and outspoken support for Israel at the Washington summit.
"Those in the White House today don't believe in American exceptionalism, they would rather emulate the failed policies of Europe," Perry charged.
"We see what the policies have led to -- 14 million Americans out of work."
Perry said Americans "are not looking for soaring speeches -- they are looking for common sense solutions," in a swipe at Obama's rhetorical style.
"They know our first order of business to getting America working again is sending our current president to the private sector."
"There should not be a single policy coming out of Washington DC that interferes with decisions best made by the family," Perry said and accused the president of "doubling down on the same failed strategy that had worsened our economic crisis."
An average of recent polls by RealClearPolitics.com showed Romney leading Perry on a national basis by 22 percent to 18 percent, just ahead of Herman Cain on 15 percent.
Perry had hit a peak of 32 percent in September.
Romney is due to appear at the conference on Saturday, in a bid to broaden his appeal to evangelical social conservatives, an important part of the Republican base in states like Iowa and South Carolina which have key early nominating contests.
His former stands on some conservative issues, and the state-run health care program he pioneered while he ran Massachusetts have contributed to his struggle to consolidate the social conservative vote so far.
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