With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.
Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.
"Like all of you, I love this country deeply," said Perry, greeted by a roar of approval when he walked unannounced onto the stage inside Houston's air-conditioned Reliant Stadium. "Indeed, the only thing you love more is the living Christ."
Critics, some of whom went to court in a futile effort to block the event, lamented what they saw as an improper commingling of religion and government. A single-engine plane, circling overhead, greeted early arrivals with a banner that read "Gov: Keep state/church separate."
Others pointed to extreme views espoused in the past by some on the program and the harshly anti-gay philosophy of the sponsoring organization. Dozens of protesters, many from gay rights groups, stood outside the arena. "Your prayer can't hide your hate," one sign read.
Throughout the day, Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a "personal God" whose "agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda." Chuckling, he added, "He is a wise, wise God, and he's wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party."
Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.
"You call us to repent, Lord, and this day is our response," Perry said.
He returned to the stage for a prayer huddle, his arm clasping the shoulder of Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and the only one of 49 governors invited by Perry who came. Brownback, who read from the Bible and delivered a prayer, introduced himself as a governor, though his office had previously said he was on vacation and attending as a private citizen.
The crowd had dwindled by late afternoon when Perry delivered closing remarks. "This is a day that people are going to discuss for years to come," he said.
The Rev. Donald Wildmon, whose American Family Assn. financed the event, said in an interview that the cost "very well could be" more than $1 million. The Mississippi-based group's website has promoted the idea of a Perry presidential candidacy, and Wildmon said the Texan's appeal would reach far beyond those on the right, including independents concerned about the faltering economy and jobs.
Controversial TV evangelist John Hagee drew a positive crowd response when he lauded Perry for having "had the courage today to call this time of fasting and prayer, just as Abraham Lincoln did in the darkest days of the Civil War."
Hagee was among the speakers whose extreme views attracted advance criticism. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain disavowed Hagee's endorsement after it became known that the San Antonio pastor had once said Hitler was dispatched by God to force Jews "to come back to the land of Israel."
Interviews with crowd members indicated that Perry had helped himself with an influential Republican voting group whose support could prove to be crucial in the 2012 primaries, and especially in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina.
David Cohoon, 56, a retired truck driver from League City, Texas, said he was surprised to come away from the event with a strong desire to see Perry, "a politician who is not afraid to show his love for God and Jesus Christ and put it out on the table for the whole world," seek the presidency.
Paul Day, 64, a patrolman with the county sheriff's office, said he arrived with doubts about the depth of Perry's conservatism. But "I saw a spirit in him today," he said. "I'm hoping and praying that he decides to run."
Roger Smith, 49, of San Antonio, voted for Perry in the governor's election but wasn't ready to back him for president. "I like Michele Bachmann. I like Sarah Palin too," the Air Force veteran said.
The high-tech, slickly produced event featured pounding, arena-style performances by Christian-themed rock groups, as well as traditional choirs, ensembles and country singer Ricky Skaggs.
At other times, it took on the atmosphere of an old-time revival meeting. As Perry offered a prayer for America, which he portrayed as a nation torn by crisis that has "forgotten who made us," a close-up of a weeping woman in the audience was projected on one of the large TV screens suspended behind him.
A Perry critic, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement that the governor "achieved his goal today. He drove almost every major religious right leader and group into his corral. If he decides to run for president, the Perry brand will be everywhere he wants it to be."