RLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry laughs while answering a question in the Fox News/Google GOP Debate at the Orange County Convention Center on September 22, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. The debate featured the nine Republican candidates two days before the Florida straw poll. (Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told social conservatives Saturday "poisonous language has never advanced our cause" as both he and rival Rick Perry grappled with a flare-up over religion.
Romney, in remarks to the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of cultural conservatives in Washington, did not directly confront the words of a prominent Perry supporter who called Romney's Mormon faith a "cult." Indeed, he was criticizing another speaker at the meeting who is known for anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and who followed him on stage.
But his cautionary words served as notice that attacks on faiths should, in his view, be off the table. He appealed to the social conservatives to support a presidential candidate who has the best record on the economy.
Perry planned a day of campaigning in religiously conservative northwest Iowa. On Friday, the Texas governor answered simply "no" when asked if he thought Mormonism was a cult. But that did not appear likely to be the last word on the subject.
Earlier in the day, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress branded Mormonism a cult and said Romney is "a good moral person, but he's not a Christian," in remarks introducing Perry to a crowd. Perry accepted the introduction by saying Jeffress "hit it out of the park."
Before Romney's address in Washington on Saturday, former Reagan administration official Bill Bennett sharply criticized Jeffress. "You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say," Bennett told the crowd. He called the pastor's remarks "bigotry."
Romney acknowledged Bennett's comments as soon as he took the stage. "Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett!"
In urging conservatives to avoid poisonous rhetoric, Romney was referring specifically to "one of the speakers who will follow me today" -- a figure who he said "has crossed that line." That was Bryan Fischer, an American Family Association official who spoke after Romney.
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