Mitt Romney addresses the crowd at the Family Research Council's… (AFP/ Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, an issue that has largely stayed below the surface of the current presidential race, erupted into the open again at a gathering here of religious conservatives, reviving questions about whether some in the evangelical community could accept Romney as the GOP nominee.
Romney spoke to the conference Saturday, a day after a Texas pastor and supporter of Rick Perry at the event labeled Mormonism "a cult" and said Romney was not a Christian.
Perry's campaign quickly distanced itself from Robert Jeffress' remarks.
"The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult," campaign spokesman Mark Miner said.
Jeffress introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit, but made his controversial statements to reporters after Perry's speech, calling his own view "mainstream" among evangelicals.
"I believe that Gov. Romney is a good, moral, family person," Jeffress said. "But he's not a born-again follower of Christ."
Romney did not address Jeffress' comments directly Saturday, but made a plea for tolerance. "Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause," he said. "It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind."
Romney, in fact, was not referring to Jeffress, but to another speaker on the day's agenda, Bryan Fischer, a Christian radio host who has a history of anti-Mormon statements. But the implication was clear to all in the room.
And while Romney tried to stay above the fray, William J. Bennett, who was Education secretary under George H.W. Bush, condemned Jeffress in remarks before Romney's address.
"You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say," Bennett said of Jeffress, calling his words "bigotry."
Fischer spoke after Romney and told the crowd that the nation's next president should be of "a sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith."
He slammed Romney later. "My issue with Gov. Romney is not that he's a Mormon, but that he isn't Mormon enough," he said, citing the former Massachusetts governor's past support for abortion rights, a position he has recanted.
Jeffress' endorsement of Perry had been viewed as a bit of a coup. The pastor leads a 10,000-member megachurch in Dallas. But after his remarks came to light, Perry's campaign was quick to note that it had not selected him to introduce the candidate.
Asked about Jeffress' remarks, Tony Perkins, an influential conservative who heads the Family Research Council, called them a "distraction."
"I think Mitt had a very legitimate and poignant point that we need to be civil in our discussion," he said.
Romney's failure to win over religious conservatives in states such as Iowa during the 2008 campaign was blamed in part on some suspicion within the evangelical community about his Mormon faith.
But some at the Values Voter conference in Washington thought the episode would damage Perry more than Romney.
"It was an unnecessary comment," said Greg Quinlan of Trenton, N.J. "It does nothing but hurt the movement, the goal of getting rid of Barack Obama."
Quinlan added, "I don't like Mitt Romney, but it has nothing to do with his being a Mormon."
Romney finished well in back of the pack in the summit's straw poll, illustrating the challenge he faces in attracting the support of this segment of the GOP base. And in a sign that his campaign continues to struggle after a hot start, Perry barely edged out Romney in the poll.
Instead, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who regularly wins polls at events such as this, dominated the field, followed by businessman Herman Cain, the new darling of many on the right.
In one sense, the poll was worse news for Perry than for Romney, as the Texas governor is relying more heavily on support from social conservatives to stay competitive.
But Romney, clearly, has the most work to do with those such as Peter Wolfgang, who came to the summit from his home in Waterbury, Conn. He left Romney's speech unimpressed. Romney, he said, said all the right things but lacked passion.
"The words are there," Wolfgang said, "but the music is missing."
Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.