WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry filled in details of his personal and spiritual biography Wednesday in a speech at the nation's largest evangelical Christian college, and outlined an approach to foreign policy that he said would imitate the nation's 40th president, Republican Ronald Reagan.
Texas Gov. Perry was introduced as a possible second coming of Reagan by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., who said he appreciated Perry's willingness to talk off the cuff in a way that is politically incorrect. Falwell Jr. specifically mentioned Perry's oblique comments regarding whether Texas might at some point secede from the United States.
Most of Perry's remarks followed the arc of his life. He cast himself as an earthy, common man, pulled himself up from a hardscrabble childhood in Paint Creek, Texas.
"For me, indoor plumbing was a bit of a luxury until I was about five years old," Perry said. "I didn't worry about the latest fashions. My mother sewed most of my clothes. And I didn't know that we weren't wealthy in a material sense. I knew that we were rich in a lot of things that really mattered, a spiritual way."
He made light of his poor performance as a student. Of his 1968 graduation from Paint Creek High School, he said, "I graduated in the top 10 of my graduating class -- of 13."
And he sought to explain why his college transcript was filled with C's and D's, saying he intended to be a veterinarian but found he was not cut out for it. "Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me," he joked.
Perry sketched out a searching, uncertain youth: "I spent many a night pondering my purpose, talking to God, wondering what to do with this one life, among the billions that were on the planet. What I learned as I wrestled with God is that I didn't have to have all the answers, that they would be revealed to me in due time, that I needed to trust him."
But, Perry said, he did not find his own Christian faith until he was 27.
"My faith journey is not the story of someone who turned to God because I wanted to. It was because I had nowhere else to turn. I was 27. I'd been an officer in the United States Air Force commanding a fairly substantial piece of sophisticated equipment, telling men and women what to do. But I was lost spiritually and emotionally. And I didn't know how to fix it," Perry said.
At another point in the speech he said that "Christian values" should be given supremacy over other religions in guiding the U.S. government.
"America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is gonna be, whose values?" Perry said. "It's those Christian values that this country was based upon."
While many evangelicals will want to hear more about Perry's personal conversion experience, for now the speech was a platform for Perry to regain some of the momentum lost over the last week.
Perry's first two debates as a presidential candidate have left him bloodied. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has attacked him for his past statements on Social Security, accusing him of wanting to end the program. And on Monday night, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) savaged Perry for his 2007 attempt to mandate an HPV vaccine for sixth-grade girls at a time when his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the drug maker, Merck, which would have manufactured the vaccine.
Polls this week have shown some signs that voters are beginning to doubt his ability to beat President Obama in a general election, though he still maintains a large lead over Romney in national polls. While that data is of some significance, it does not tell the story of the candidate's standing in key early primary states.
Perry also meandered Monday night in his answer on how the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan. And some saw his call to "bring our young men and women home" as a nod to a more isolationist form of foreign policy that has emerged among some on the right.
But the Texan went out of his way to articulate a vision for engagement with the world, not withdrawal.
"Our response cannot be to isolate ourselves within our own borders but to engage our allies in the quest to build these enduring alliances around the globe for freedom," he said.
The central thrust of his foreign policy message was that the U.S. should be "the world's leading advocate for freedom," addressing the problem of oppression that he said he originally saw first hand as an Air Force pilot flying a C-130 transport plane through the mid-1970s.
"We must do what Ronald Reagan did at the apex of the Cold War, which is to speak past the oppressors and the illegitimate rulers and directly to their people -- the ones who live behind the walls of oppression while yearning to be free," Perry said.
Falwell Jr., the son of Liberty founder Jerry Falwell -- who died in 2007 -- said in his introduction that the current moment is similar to 1980, when Reagan ran against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. It was a clear comparison of Perry to Reagan, a parallel that has been discussed recently even in the Wall Street Journal.
"Thirty-one years ago this fall as a Liberty freshman, I sat mesmerized as a conservative governor from a large state told a much smaller convocation about his vision for America," Falwell Jr. said. "At that time, America was mired in an economic malaise and seemed to be waning in its standing in the world. Overreaching government control had fueled double-digit interest rates and inflation. As young college students, we feared -- just as many of you do now -- that our nation's future was in jeopardy. Ronald Reagan was that governor, and he was elected president soon thereafter, and over the following eight years he returned America to prominence and prosperity."
Falwell Jr. then welcomed Perry to the podium saying, "I have a feeling today that history is about to repeat itself."
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