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Gingrich, Perry court pastors in South Carolina

By NBC’s Ali Weinberg
GREENVILLE, S.C. – Campaigning in South Carolina on Thursday, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry visited a hotel ballroom to seek the support of a crucial coalition here, as well as in Iowa: Evangelical pastors.

They were both featured speakers at the Pastors Policy Briefing, a gathering of roughly 400 church leaders hosted by the South Carolina Renewal Project, a branch of an under-the-radar evangelical group that holds similar events in other major primary states.

Gingrich and Perry– one recently thrust into the glare of public favor, the other trying to get back in it – gave speeches that demonstrated vastly different levels of comfort with religious rhetoric.

“A message that would fit in”

Shortly before Gingrich took the podium, the pastors watched a video about The Response, a prayer meeting hosted by Perry in Texas, spinoff versions of which are being planned in Iowa and South Carolina.

Gingrich first seemed to acknowledge that the tone of the revival-style gathering was one he was less familiar with.

“I was trying to think about a message that would fit in with the Response,” he said.

He spoke, as he has at many campaign events, about America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Not mentioned: the Bible.

In fact, his speech was mostly free of religious references, save his belief that there will be “a great awakening in the sense of Whitefield,” an influential revivalist preacher in the mid-1700’s.

“I think that there will, in fact, be an astonishing desire by the American people to pursue freedom in a spiritual way,” he continued.

Gingrich did ask for the audience’s prayers when he described his presidential ambitions, seemingly still coming to terms with the possibility of his own success.  

“The most sobering thing that has happened to me this year is the very real possibility I’ll end up as president,” he said. “It’s one thing to run. That’s a big jump. Then you think you might be the Republican candidate. That’s a big jump. The other thing to think is as a Republican candidate you might beat Barack Obama. That’s pretty big. Then you suddenly realize if those three things happen, I would then have to serve as president,” he said.

Some of those in the audience seemed skeptical of Gingrich’s immigration policy, which would allow some longtime illegal residents of the U.S. to stay here. Gingrich addressed those concerns during a question-and-answer session after his speech.

“These are people who would be married, have children, grandchildren, have ties in your communities, may well be in some of your churches, candidly,” he said.

“I think churches would become sanctuaries,” he added, making a compassionate appeal. “I think you would find people who would just say, ‘we’re not going to let you take our church members away.’”

Gingrich was also asked whether he would “seek God first” when making decisions as president.

“I feel like I have to do that,” Gingrich said simply, to scattered “amens.”

“That is my message”

Unlike Gingrich, who added a few mentions of revival and prayer to an otherwise standard speech, Perry tailored his entire address to his Evangelical audience – clearly a group with which he was comfortable.

“A lot of those that criticized said it’s not the role of a public official to be involved calling people together to pray,” he said of hosting The Response. “This wasn’t about me. This was about Him.”

Sprinkling Biblical passages throughout his speech, he said that he keeps Joshua 1:9 (“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged…”) behind his desk at the statehouse.

“That is my message,” he said, displaying none of Gingrich’s apparent difficulty in finding a topic of discussion.

Perry also related some Biblical figures to himself. “Even if you suffer for righteousness sake, you are blessed,” Perry said, quoting from the book of Peter.

“It wasn’t lost on me about who said that: Brother Peter,” Perry said, pastors nodding in understanding. “Peter whose mouth sometimes seemed to work faster than his brain. I can really relate to Peter,” he continued, the audience laughing with him.

His speech also took a turn for the biographical, speaking about his mother’s influence on his spirituality.

“If there was a revival within driving distance, we were there,” he said. “I say, Jesus Christ is the reason I’m saved by his grace, but it was my momma who helped me get there,” he said, jokingly.

Perry struck a humble tone when speaking of his own presidential prospects. “I know whether this journey leads me to Washington D.C or it leads me back to Austin, Texas, I know His will will be done,” he said.

But while his fate may rest in the hands of God, Perry also applied his new consultant-made, Evangelical-friendly campaign strategy.

“We have an administration that is, from my perspective, engaged in a war against religion,” he said, slamming Obama’s policies on abortion, gay marriage and gays serving openly in the military.

Perry also briefly took on Gingrich, when he was asked to weight in on the suggestion that some illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. “Newt and I disagree on that issue. I’m not for amnesty in any form or fashion,” he said.

While Gingrich tried for a compassionate appeal, saying some pastors might have illegal immigrants in their churches, Perry seemed to avoid looking “soft” on the issue, calling his Texas DREAM Act, in which some illegal immigrants can pay in-state college tuition, “a state sovereignty issue,” steering clear of his past assertion that the law’s opponents are heartless.

He also took an aggressive tone on border security.

“When I’m the president of the United States, within 12 months, that border will be secure and shut down. Count on it!” he said, his tone noticeably harder. “I’m sorry. I get a little bit…” he trailed off as the audience drowned him in applause.

While Gingrich received a light ovation for saying that he felt that he would “have to” be guided by God in the White House, Perry’s answer to a similar question was more enthusiastically received.

“I told my congregation that I would endorse the man that would not compromise his faith. Are you that man? “ A pastor asked Perry.

“I’m not answering you. I’m answering to the Lord Jesus Christ. Because I’ve already answered that question for him, and that answer is yes,” he said.

But addressing a room of Evangelicals did leave Perry vulnerable to questions about Mormonism, the faith of two of his presidential opponents. At the very end of the question-and-answer portion, Perry was urged to “say Mormonism is a cult.”

As some members of the audience applauded, Perry left the stage without saying a word.

A parting image

Both Gingrich and Perry participated in a group prayer after their speeches, in which the pastors were invited to approach the candidates, lay their hands on them and worship.

Standing on the podium, Gingrich was flanked by a few pastors, who, heads bowed, reached for his shoulders as Luis Cataldo, a minister who hosted The Response with Perry, said a prayer.

But Perry, who had left the stage by the time the prayer began, attracted many more pastors to his side. Kneeling, he was almost completely concealed by those surrounding him as Cataldo began the prayer.

When the prayer was over, Perry rose slowly, hugging and shaking the hands of those who surrounded him with an ease that suggested that for Perry, unlike for Gingrich, this gathering was as familiar to him as those revivals his mother used to bring him to.