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Pastor's comments reignite issue of Romney's religion

Controversial comments made Friday by a Texas pastor and supporter of Gov. Rick Perry again inserted the issue of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's faith into the forefront of the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

Romney faced questions about his Mormon faith during his 2008 presidential campaign, but so far in this campaign, Romney's religion has largely taken a backseat to voter concerns over jobs and the economy -- issues that play to Romney's political strength as a former business executive.

The GOP field, including Romney, found themselves having to respond to comments made Friday by Dr. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, who, in his introduction of Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a social conservatives' conference on Friday, called Mormonism a "cult," and asserted that Romney was not a Christian.

"We should remember that decency and civility are values too," Romney said the next day at the same conference. "One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause; it's never softened a single heart or changed a single mind."

Jeffress's comments spurred a weekend's worth of focus on Romney's background, and his social conservative credentials (another source of worry for some religious Republicans, who worry about Romney's past stances on issues like abortion rights).

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who's also a Mormon, forcefully defended Romney from attack during a weekend town hall at Colby-Sawyer College.

"Here in New Hampshire that is seen as the most ridiculous sideshow in recent politics. It doesn't create an additional job. The discussion of Mormonism doesn't expand our economic base. It doesn't secure our position in the world. I have no idea why people are wasting spending so much political capital and bandwith on this issue. It's nonsense," Huntsman said.

The Perry campaign quickly distanced itself from Jeffress's remarks, and Perry himself said Friday night that he does not believe that Mormonism is a cult.

Romney had sought to soothe conservatives' concerns about his religion in late 2007 with a speech that sought to maintain a delicate balance between his roots, and his obligations as a potential president.

"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," he said in the speech. "Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage."

If anything, Romney's campaign thought that the healthcare plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts would be the bigger liability during the 2012 cycle; that logic fueled the decision to deliver a major speech in May on the plan, which was modeled in part after the Mormon speech, though at an earlier point in the cycle.

Romney also had the advantage of other candidates rallying to his defense over the weekend. They opted against adding fuel to the fire when it came to murmurs about Romney's religion.

"He's a Mormon. That much I know," former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain said on CNN. "I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that. I'm not getting into that."

"I think what the real focus is here, is on religious tolerance. That's really what this is about," Rep. Michele Bachmann also said on CNN. "To make this a big issue is ridiculous right now, because every day I'm on the street talking to people. This is not what people are talking about."

Rick Santorum, who, like Bachmann, has intently focused on social conservatives' support in his bid for the GOP nomination, also defended Romney on Fox.

"I'm not an expert on Mormonism. All I know is that every Mormon I know is a good and decent person, has great moral values and, by and large, with the exception of Harry Reid, by and large, pretty consistent in the values that I share and that things I want to see happen to this country," Santorum said. "And that's what he should be judged on."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, called Jeffress's "remarks very unwise and very inappropriate."

NBC's Jo Ling Kent and Garrett Haake contributed reporting from New London, NH.