Gov. Rick Perry's campaign refused Tuesday to formally distance itself from a Texas pastor's criticism of Mormonism, calling rival presidential candidate Mitt Romney's demand that Perry "repudiate" the pastor a distraction.
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan tells NBC News that Romney's call for Perry to repudiate the controversial pastor who called Mormonism a "cult" is merely an attempt to "change the subject."
Sullivan's comments Tuesday afternoon come in response to a demand made by Romney during a press conference to announce that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had endorsed Romney for president.
"I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness upon religion has a place in this country," Romney said of the comments by Dr. Robert Jeffress, the head of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas. "I would call on Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor."
Perry's campaign responded in a statement by challenging Romney to "repudiate government-mandated health care as crafted in Romneycare," the health care law Romney had authorized as governor. The email sets the stage for a showdown between the two Republican heavyweights at tonight's presidential debate.
Sullivan argued that Romney's public call for Perry to disavow Jeffress is "is an attempt for Gov. Romney to change the subject" away from issues like his support for the 2006 Massachusetts health care plan that served as a framework for the Obama administration's new health law.
"The governor has publicly disagreed with [Robert Jeffress's] characterization," he said. "We have no control over who endorses, supports, or votes for the governor."
Sullivan added that the Perry campaign has not been in contact with Jeffress and has not advised the outspoken pastor about his media omnipresence since calling Mormonism a cult on Friday. "We have had no contact with the pastor and he speaks for himself."
Asked about NJ Gov Chris Christie's endorsement of Romney today, Sullivan referred NBC to a paper statement released by the campaign and said that Perry has great respect for the Nj gov.
He added that the onetime potential presidential candidate's backing of Romney will be worth "a news cycle worth of boost" but that voters will ultimately decide the election on the issues.