Rick Perry knew.
If the polls suggest that there is a particular vulnerability in your campaign opponent's resumé, you make a calculated risk by ignoring the weakness. In the south, it is not a secret that evangelical Christians view Mormonism with a wary eye. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Center, 57 percent of voters identifying themselves as Christians don't think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as being a part of traditional Christendom. Consequently, logic suggests they might not vote for a person of that faith.
And Rick Perry is not going to ignore those numbers or that logic. The reason the Texas governor informally launched his campaign at a gigantic prayer rally with evangelical southern Christians was to let all of them know that he came from their tribe. He might as well have been telling them, "Vote for me. I'm not a Mormon," which, in a fairly obvious manner, is exactly what he accomplished. Perry did not denounce Mitt Romney's religious belief system but he knew there were others to do that important political work.
Perry's surrogates are running a campaign to spread the word that Christians ought not to support a Mormon for the president. Dallas mega church Pastor Robert Jeffress, who was having a conversation in the hallway after the Value Voters convention, went public with the message that Mormonism was a cult to most Christians. Jeffress found himself, perhaps not accidentally, on most of the political cable talk shows and news networks explaining his perception of Mormonism, and, by extension, speaking for millions of evangelicals. Rick Perry had asked Jeffress to introduce him to the Values Voters convention audience. Perry knew what Jeffress thought, and what he was going to say, on stage and off.
Using a well-established political protocol, though, Rick Perry distanced himself from Jeffress' comments, but just slightly. The standard approach in presidential campaigns is always to have third-party surrogates do the dirty work and allow the candidate to take the high road. In this case, Perry said that he did not believe that Mormonism was a cult. What he did not say, however, was whether he believes the religion is a part of Christendom and whether Mormons are true Christians. And he won't say that because it's not something he believes.
Mitt Romney has not pressed Perry on this question because Romney knows that his religion is an issue for southern evangelicals and the less it is discussed the less harm is done to his campaign, which is why Perry's surrogates will not drop the subject. Romney and Jon Huntsman, who is also a Mormon, have consistently suggested that discussions about their religion are a distracting sideshow from the important issues but Rick Perry and his strategist David Carney are counting on it being a weapon in their political fight for the GOP nomination. The argument that a person's faith ought not to play a role in the debate in the public square falls apart if a Muslim candidate enters the race; consequently, it is of relevance to the Republicans when they look to their nominee.
A conversation over religion in a presidential campaign can lead to some awkward assertions. Mormons might ask how Joseph Smith's never seen tablets are somehow less real than the one(s) on which Moses delivered the Ten Commandments. Is the foundational narrative of Mormonism and the appearance of the Angel Moroni any less believable than the story of a man who rose from the dead, moved a giant boulder in front of his tomb, and ascended into heaven to be with god? This is the discussion the Republican Party does not want to have on the airwaves. If neither Smith's tablets can be produced nor the Ark of the Covenant, how can Christians dismiss Mormons? Is one a story and the other history and where is the empirical proof that exists beyond faith?
Those questions will not be answered in a presidential campaign. There will simply be a continued and orchestrated effort via emails, phone calls, and a whisper campaign that Mitt Romney is part of an alternative belief system and is, therefore, not qualified to be president and Christians ought not to vote for a non-Christian. Perry's Make America Great Again super PAC, run by the governor's old roommate and his former chief of staff Mike Toomey, can be expected to provide resources to get out that message along with the New Apostolic Reformation's Prayer Warrior Network, which has operations in all 50 states.
The Perry family, seeking to distract from the full-frontal assault on Romney's religion, has been working to position the governor and his wife and children as victims. The governor's wife Anita made fatuous and emotional claims that the Perry's were being attacked for their Christian Faith. She offered no proof beyond her glistening eyes because there was none. But there is probably a bitter conversation coming for Republicans on the question of religion. When a presidential candidate like Perry offers up his faith as an attribute that makes him an attractive nominee, he can expect to be scrutinized.
But let them argue over whose god is right. And the voters can focus on how the Republicans are all wrong.