ABC News’ Michael Falcone and Emily Friedman report:
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose not to take on Pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter of Rick Perry, who called Romney’s religion, Mormonism, a “cult” on Friday.
Instead, on Saturday Romney took a pre-emptive strike at the speaker who followed him at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC — Bryan Fischer of the conservative American Family Association, who has openly criticized Mormonism.
“We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” Romney said. “One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line. Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”
In his speech, Fischer said the next president must be a person of “sincere, genuine Christian faith,” though he did not specify whether Romney fit that criteria. (In the past Fischer has referred to Mormonism as a non-Christian religion.)
“We need a president who believes in the same creator in whom the founders believed,” he said.
Before Romney spoke, Bill Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who now hosts his own syndicated radio talk show, condemned Pastor Jeffress comments, warning: “Do not give voice to bigotry.”
“I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here,” Bennett said in his speech on Saturday morning. “You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.”
Romney, who took the stage after Bennett spoke praised him: “Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett, isn’t he something else?” His words were a twist on Perry’s response to Jeffress introduction of him at the same conference the previous day: “He knocked it out of the park,” Perry said.
The back-and-forth over Mormonism represented the most prominent religion-based controversy of the Republican primary season to date.
It was not Romney’s natural constituency, but the Republican presidential candidate focused the rest of his speech to the social conservative crowd on faith and family values, a rebuke of President Obama’s stewardship of the country and his own plans in the areas of economic and foreign policy.
President Obama, Romney said, “likes to remind us of what he inherited. He also inherited a triple a bond rating. But now the American people are starting to do some downgrading of their own. Last November and in special elections across the country since than Americans have rejected the president’s agenda.”
He added, “Obamacare is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. It’s expensive, it’s intrusive and its unconstitutional, and that’s why I’m going to fight to repeal it.”
And Romney opened up a new line of attack on the Obama administration’s $535 million loan to the bankrupt solar power company, Solyndra.
“In one term, he will have nearly amassed more debt than all our prior presidents combined. We needed stability and solvency but we got Solyndra,” Romney said. “In one term, he will have nearly amassed more debt than all our prior presidents combined. We needed stability and solvency, but we got Solyndra.”
Romney turned some of his attention to social issues, including traditional marriage and protecting life. If elected, Romney vowed to appoint an attorney general who would defend the Defense of Marriage Act. He also said it was “long past time” for Roe v. Wade to be overturned.
“More than a million abortions a year can’t be squared with the good heart of America,” Romney said.
“We must continue to welcome faith into the public square and allow it to flourish,” Romney noted. “Our government must respect religious values, not silence them. We will always pledge our allegiance to a nation that is under God.”