AUSTIN -- Organizers of Saturday's daylong Houston prayer service initiated by Gov. Rick Perry say it will be devoid of politics, but the event will nevertheless put a spotlight on Christian voters and social conservatives who intend to be a potent force in the 2012 presidential election.
And Perry, who often cites his Christian faith, could be a major beneficiary of that voting bloc if he enters the race, say several conservative leaders and analysts. "I think they will look very favorably on his candidacy," said the Rev. Pat Robertson, a Christian conservative leader and televangelist who himself ran for president in 1988.
Called The Response, the gathering in Reliant Stadium has provoked controversy because of what critics say are extremist views by some of its participants toward gays, Catholics and non-Christians. The Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State is holding what it calls a "counter-event" Friday night at a Houston church to protest Saturday's gathering.
'A call to prayer'
Perry, who has said that he doesn't embrace all the views of the participants, describes the service as "a call to prayer for a nation in crisis." As many as 8,000 people, including representatives from Tarrant County, are registered to participate in seven hours of prayer, Scripture readings and inspirational messages. That crowd would fill only a small portion of the 71,500-seat stadium.
The Republican governor will be present for the duration of the 10 a.m.-to-5 p.m. event, spokesman Mark Miner said. Further details of Perry's participation are apparently still evolving, but an announcement to run for president is not on the table, Miner said.
Perry has been reaching out to political leaders and potential donors across the country and could announce a decision before month's end. Several polls have put him in the upper tier of Republican contenders, fanning speculation that he is all but certain to seek his party's nomination.
Even with its nonpolitical billing, The Response seems likely to burnish Perry's credentials among social conservatives, who have been a major part of his political base in Texas. Eric Bearse, spokesman for the event, said participation will stretch across a "diversity of ministries" that include evangelicals and others.
"This event is not about particular public policy issues," Bearse said. "It's about coming together and praying for the country."
At the same time, the event includes groups and individuals who have been influential in energizing grassroots conservatives.
The 'culture war'
The host organization is the American Family Association, which "has been on the frontlines of America's culture war" since 1977, the organization says on its website.
Founded by United Methodist minister Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., the nonprofit group describes itself as "one of the largest and most effective pro-family organizations" in the country and has taken a leadership role in national conservative campaigns against abortion and gay rights.
It operates nearly 200 radio stations and has organized numerous boycotts against businesses and corporations.
Another prominent participant is David Lane, a conservative political activist from California and national finance chairman for The Response.
Lane, who has worked with the association, has been active since the 1990s in organizing pastors to become politically engaged. A brief description of Lane's activities on The Response website credited him with helping increase turnout in "key battleground states" in 2010. It quoted Lane as saying: "What I do is spiritual. The byproduct is political."
Lane has also been active in Texas, organizing the Texas Restoration Project, which mobilized a network of pastors in advance of Perry's 2006 re-election race.
Lane could not be reached for comment.
David Barton of Aledo, CEO and Founder of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization, is one of the event's "endorsers" and will be among those participating in the series of prayers.
The influence of the Christian right has ebbed and flowed and the movement has become more decentralized in recent years. Republican strategists complained that as many as 4 million social conservatives were AWOL in the 2000 election, but a targeted effort by strategist Karl Rove and others four years later propelled them back into the fold in 2004 to help then-President George W. Bush win re-election over Democrat John Kerry.
Evangelical voters back
Evangelical voters turned out in record numbers in 2010 to fuel Republican victories in state and national elections that dealt a devastating blow to President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats.
Exit polls showed that 28.8 million Christian conservatives -- 32 percent of all voters -- turned out last year, the highest recorded percentage of any election, Barton said. Although evangelicals, including Hispanics and African-Americans, also support Democrats, most vote for Republicans. In 2010, Barton said, 77 percent voted for Republicans, up 7 percent from four years earlier.
Ralph Reed, who was the first executive director of the Christian Coalition and now heads another group, Faith and Freedom Coalition, says the "persistence of the evangelical vote" in the American electorate "is one of the underreported stories of the last several years."
As the longest-serving governor of the second-largest state, with a strong record on social and fiscal conservatism, Perry could come into the race with strong support among evangelicals and Christian conservatives and emerge as the front-runner among that voting bloc, experts say.
"I think he'll look good," said Robertson, adding that the Texas governor "could be the next president." Reed said he believes Perry "should be able to make a very compelling appeal to those voters."
But, at the same time, Christian leaders say Perry wouldn't have an automatic lock on the vote, pointing out that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has strong support among evangelicals.
Robertson says he is "leaning toward" Bachmann at this stage of the race, noting that Perry "hasn't even declared" his candidacy.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-476-4294