CLEAR LAKE, Iowa (AP) — Rick Perry bragged to an Iowa barbecue crowd about the strong economy back in Texas, drew laughs comparing President Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter and won applause vowing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. But in a state where evangelicals wield political influence, he didn’t mention religion until 25 minutes into his address, and only then when asked about it.
“Nothing against golf, but on Sunday morning, you’re not going to see me at the golf course,” Perry quipped about his unwavering church attendance.
The former Texas governor’s devout Christian beliefs were a centerpiece of his short-lived 2012 White House bid but are an afterthought in his second-chance campaign across Iowa.
While Republican rivals Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz are pushing hard to mobilize the conservative evangelical vote, Perry prefers to trumpet his 14 years of executive experience leading the second most populous state. In a field with few military veterans, he also speaks about his five years in the Air Force.
Evangelicals helped catapult Santorum to a 2012 Iowa caucus win and had spurred Huckabee to an Iowa victory four years earlier. Perry’s super PACs, though, are broadcasting TV commercials in Iowa focused on security at the far-away border and Perry’s cotton farm upbringing — not on God.
Perry said his faith is as important as ever; he just doesn’t need to talk about it as much while campaigning.
“Nothing’s changed between me and the Lord,” he said between campaign stops. “I’m still planning on going to heaven.” He added: “I’m a different candidate, but I’m still the same person at my core.”
Perry was active in both the Methodist and Baptist churches growing up but since 2011 has attended a non-denominational evangelical megachurch in Austin. Last year, he was baptized anew by a pastor from that church in the same rural creek where Texas icon Sam Houston was baptized.
Perry’s religious beliefs were on much broader display four years ago, when he briefly became a presidential front-runner before his campaign flamed out.
A week before entering the 2012 race, Perry headlined “The Response,” a seven-hour prayer meeting at a Houston football stadium where he declared before 30,000 believers: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.”
Another signature moment of his first presidential bid was a television ad played heavily in Iowa in which Perry proclaimed “I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Christian.”
But that all-out appeal to evangelicals fizzled. This time, Perry barely mentions Christianity in his stump speech. Although he’s frequently asked about his faith, his responses are usually limited to saying he opposes the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage and that, as president, he’d protect religious freedom.
That wasn’t enough for Sharon Elling, who was among those who filled nearly every seat when Perry visited a brew pub and cafe in Hampton, population about 4,000. She asked Perry whether he would defend businesses’ right to refuse serving gay couples for religious reasons. He responded by panning the high court’s gay marriage ruling, which struck her as tepid.
“I wish he’d spoken more about that,” said Elling, a 71-year-old retiree. “I know that would be politically a little bit dicey. But we need some people who aren’t afraid and will voice that position.”
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Perry’s Christian beliefs can still be present in the campaign even if they aren’t as visible.
“I don’t think it’s one or the other,” Scheffler said. “Even if you’re campaigning on your executive experience and policies, your faith drives the decisions in your life.”
Cruz, another Texan, is focusing much more on evangelical support, though his advisers won’t say whether he’s trying to fill a void in the courtship of religious conservatives opened by Perry. The senator kicked off his campaign at Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and publicly embraces his Southern Baptist faith.
“I would say Ted Cruz is trying to out-Huckabee Huckabee, and I think he’s actually doing a good job,” said David Lane, a California-based evangelical who has organized pastors across the country to be more politically active. A former Arkansas governor, Huckabee is also an ordained Southern Baptist minister.
Perry’s playing down of his faith may widen his appeal with Iowa voters who think there is too much talk about religion in politics.
“I remember him speaking about his faith before and he didn’t do well,” said Wynn Touney, a 75-year-old retiree who met Perry in 2011 and then again at a recent event in Fort Dodge, about 90 miles southwest of Clear Lake. “It’s nice to hear what else is on his mind.”