Rick Perry’s furious effort to court Christian leaders

As Rick Perry’s presidential campaign moves forward, he is devoting enormous energy to wooing religious conservatives, including participating last weekend in a two-day retreat with evangelical leaders on a remote Texas ranch.

The meeting received little public attention, though the 200 or so in attendance included luminaries of the Christian right such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, California pastor Jim Garlow, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Washington-area Bishop Harry Jackson, who presides over one of the largest African American churches on the East Coast.

“It was an extraordinary gathering,” said one participant, who declined to be named in order to confirm details of the off-the-record session. “Virtually anyone who is a significant player in the social conservative movement either was there or had a representative there. And this was in the middle of nowhere.”

The event was held on a ranch west of Austin owned by San Antonio entrepreneur James Leininger, a backer of conservative causes and one of Perry’s longtime political benefactors.

Attendees were struck not only by the clout of those who participated, but the amount of time Perry spent with the group. The Texas governor and his wife mingled with the Christian leaders both Friday evening and again for several hours Saturday, answering often-personal questions about his faith, his family and his record.

“He spoke openly about his faith and unabashedly so,” said another leader who was present. “I think he resonated because he was very honest and very real. People could ask any questions and he never dodged one.”

Perry’s participation in the event, dubbed “A Call to Action,” comes just weeks after he hosted a massive prayer rally inHouston called “The Response,” underscoring his aggressive efforts to win over religious conservatives in his bid to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

By all accounts, the Texas governor is making inroads with leaders of this key political constituency, which could prove especially valuable as he seeks support in Iowa and South Carolina, pivotal nominating states with large numbers of evangelical voters.

“I don’t see how it could have gone any better for Gov. Perry -- he had all the right answers,” said one attendee. “People came wanting to be impressed and wanting to have a candidate to coalesce around. And as one leader said, ‘This guy sounds and looks like a combination of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.’”

Participants were asked not to disclose details or take photographs or audio recordings of the proceedings, which took place in an air-conditioned tent amid temperatures that exceeded 105 degrees. In addition to national leaders, the audience included dozens of young people from around the country, including many African Americans and Latinos.

Several described it as an extraordinarily frank session in which the governor answered a wide range of questions about his personal faith, including specifically about when he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. Perry responded that he was raised with Christ, though he admitted he left the path at some point during his military service. God then got his attention again, Perry said, and he recommitted himself to a life of faith. He assured those in attendance that he had lived a moral life and said he had a group of people who held him “accountable” for following a Christian path, including someone who prayed with him during his recent back surgery.

Perry proclaimed his fealty to Christian conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage and schooling. He also discussed the economy and related the issue to biblical teachings, one participant said.

At one point, a participant noted that Perry disappointed many evangelicals when he backed the 2008 presidential bid of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a social moderate who supports abortion rights, and asked whether he would pick a pro-life running mate. Perry promised he would--excluding the possibility of tapping someone like Giuliani.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the gathering was on the governor’s schedule long before he announced his presidential bid. He declined to comment on what Perry said at a closed meeting, but added that the purpose of the event was “to get conservative religious leaders together to talk about issues facing the country.”

The Texas governor was also asked to explain his attempt in 2007 to require all sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus,  a sexually transmitted disease and a cause of cervical cancer. That effort has been strongly criticized by allies of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann as well as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, two of his GOP rivals who are also seeking support from conservative Christian voters. Perry reiterated his recent statement that such an effort was a mistake.

As questions about his record ricocheted around the large tent, veteran televangelist James Robison rose to defend Perry as a strong Christian, said that he had made mistakes, as all men do. He called for the audience to be wary of media scrutiny of the governor, saying Perry’s record was excellent and that he had acknowledged any errors. His remarks were greeted by sustained applause.

The event was opened by Leininger, a major Perry donor who made his fortune in hospital beds and other medical equipment and has since started dozens of companies, some of which received state economic development funds under Perry’s administration.

In 1998, when Perry ran for lieutenant governor in Texas, Leininger was among those who guaranteed a $1.1-million loan to his campaign, allowing Perry to launch a last-minute advertising blitz that helped him eke out a narrow victory. 

Since Perry became governor, Leininger has given his campaigns nearly $240,000 and donated another $100,000 to the Republican Governors Assn., which Perry chaired twice, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Leininger is a major advocate for school vouchers and tort reform and a stalwart opponent of abortion and gay marriage.

This post has been updated.

Tom.hamburger@latimes.com

Matea.gold@latimes.com