At their press conference today, both Mitt Romney and Chris Christie rapped Rick Perry for Rev. Robert Jeffress' claim that Mormonism is a cult and that Christians shouldn't support a Mormon candidate.
"These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody's ability to lead. You have to evaluate their record, evaluate their character, and evaluate their integrity -- not based upon their religious beliefs but based upon who they are.
And I think that any campaign that associates itself with that type of comment is beneath the office of President of the United States, in my view."
Romney then stepped in.
"Governor Perry selected an individual to introduce him who then used religion as a basis for which he said he would endorse Governor Perry and a reason to not support me.
And Governor Perry then said that introduction just hit it out of the park.
I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country.
.... I would call upon Governor Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor."
Couple things wrong with Romney's comments.
1. Jeffress didn't call Mormonism a cult and say the really controversial stuff until an interview after his introduction of Perry. So it's disingenuous to say that Perry was a party to it.
2. Romney is playing the victim here. He knows he's struggling with evangelicals, but the way to win their affections isn't to scold them for being intolerant and try to scare them into how they approach the intersection of religion and politics. That's what the Left regularly does to the Christian right.
Nearly all evangelicals call Mormonism a "cult". Sure, Romney isn't necessarily calling them out for that designation, but it's very easy to interpret it as an attack on evangelicals' right to make theological distinctions.
Beyond possibly alienating a group he'll need in the general election, Romney looks smaller because of this. Perry is struggling mightily right now. Romney doesn't need to hit him on this.
3. Now everyone will have to play the guilt-by-association game and start calling on people to repudiate this or that supporter's words. Not fun. Distracting. Jon Huntsman might even call it "drama or political theatre". Regardless, the race is worse because of it.