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Rick Perry was introduced by Robert Jeffress, a Baptist church leader, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington Friday. Jeffress later that day called Mormonism a “cult” and said he did not believe Mitt Romney was a Christian. Check out the video:

And so the issue of the Republican establishment favorite’s religion — Romney is a Mormon — which had largely stayed off the radar of this campaign, is poised to reemerge as a serious issue just when Republican primary voters start to settle on their choices.

Romney’s camp was quick to punch back. His introducer at the Summit, Bill Bennett, rebuked Jeffress before the candidate took the stage.

“Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry,” Bennett said. “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. You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.”

Romney’s speech was well-received, and as this is the second story in as many weeks painting Perry as a bigot (the first being the now-infamous name of his hunting ranch), the Texan’s backers have to be worried that the electability argument might start to pull (even more) establishment Republicans into Romney’s camp.

The spat also opens a bigger debate: is the Republican Evangelical community too intolerant, too prone to judgments and even prejudice — whether toward Mormons, Islam, or homosexuality?

Romney himself gently rebuked another hard right social conservative speaker at the Summit, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association.

“We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” Romney said when he took the stage Saturday. “One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause.”

Romney, then, is expanding his push for a more moderate, practical Republican Party to the lion’s den — the religious Right. His new strategy carries risks, though: he may not need their whole-hearted support to win the primary, but as Karl Rove can tell you, a fired-up Evangelical community is key to the Republican Party winning national elections these days.

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