Mitt Romney Snags Chris Christie Endorsement, Addresses Mormon Cult Controversy

ABC News’ Emily Friedman, Michael Falcone and Arlette Saenz report:

LEBANON, N.H. — Moments after receiving a surprise endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addressed a Rick Perry supporter’s recent remarks that likened his Mormon faith to a “cult.”

Asked by a reporter what he thought about using someone’s religion as part of the campaign, Romney said, “Gov. Perry selected an individual to introduce him who then used religion as a basis for which he said he would endorse Gov. Perry and a reason to not support me.”

The controversy began last week when, at a conference of social conservatives in Washington, D.C., Pastor Robert Jeffress told reporters that Mormonism is a “cult” after he endorsed Perry at the same event.

The Southern Baptist Convention leader praised Perry for his “strong commitment to biblical values.”

On Tuesday, Romney called upon Perry to renounce the Pastor’s remarks.

“Gov. Perry then said that introduction just hit it out of the park, and I just don’t believe that that type of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country,” Romney said. “And I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor.”

But the Perry campaign declined Romney’s suggestion.

“The pastor was referring to the governor and made no reference to Romney in his introductory remarks,” Ray Sullivan, Perry’s spokesman, told ABC News.

As for Jeffress’ later comments on Mormonism being a cult, Perry has already repudiated that, Sullivan said: “He made it clear he does not agree with the characterization of the Mormon Church.”

At the news conference, Christie also addressed the controversy.

“These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody’s ability to lead,” the New Jersey governor said. “I think that any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States, in my view.”

In addition to Romney’s own call for Perry to “repudiate” Jeffress’ comments, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters after today’s event that Perry has to “answer for” the pastor’s stance on Mormonism.

Repudiate Jeffress entirely, a reporter asked the strategist?

“Yes,” Fehrnstrom said.

“What happened at the Values Voter conference was that a supporter and an endorser of Gov. Perry sought to qualify his candidate on the basis of religion and disqualify another candidate on the basis of religion,” Fehrnstrom said. “That is wrong. It violates the spirit of our Constitution and Gov. Perry needs to make it clear that there is no room in his campaign for people who harbor those views.”

Christie first told Romney of his endorsement plans at a lunch at Christie’s home in New Jersey last Saturday. According to a senior Romney adviser, Romney and Christie had been in “constant communication” since Romney launched his presidential campaign in June.

“It was a mutual decision where both of them wanted to see each other and spend some time in person with their spouses,” Fehrnstrom said.

The two men renewed their “off and on” conversations after Christie ruled himself out as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and “things came together fairly rapidly after that,” Fehrnstrom said.

The Romney strategist said the campaign would be “thrilled” to have Christie as a high-profile surrogate during the course of the campaign.