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WASHINGTON, D.C. ( TheStreet) -- Though he's now flavor-of-the-month in Republican polls, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-Methodist) may be a godsend to the presidential prospects of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mormon).
If he gets past Romney for the nomination, Perry's Bible-thumping may be the diversion from a hell-ish economy President Barack Obama needs to fire up a secularist Democratic base and appeal to younger, less religious independent voters -- especially as Perry's "job-producing" record is increasingly revealed as that of a tax-revenue-bestowing, special-interest corporatist, rather than a free-market conservative.
2007 survey of 35,000 adults, Pew Research found a quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds had no religious affiliation. And one in 10 Americans self-identified as either agnostic, atheist or "secular unaffiliated." In both the Republican Party and the general electorate, God doesn't have the influence he used to, four decades after religious conservatives began pushing back through politics against abortion and the sexual revolution.
Arguing that Perry's candidacy helps Romney will seem counterintuitive if you believe bowing before TV preachers is key to a Republican nomination. In a few early contests, evangelicals dominate, starting with Iowa where Southern Baptist preacher, Gov. Mike Huckabee, won in 2008, but with only 9% more than Mormon Romney (34% to 25%). Huckabee quickly fizzled, unable to parlay Iowa victory into South Carolina success two weeks later.
Perry is making a mistake of first-time presidential candidates, pandering to perceived power brokers in his party's base -- forgetting others are tuned in, including independents essential to November victory. Introducing religion at a high decibel level, as he did with his Aug. 6 seven-hour God-a-thon, Perry offers Romney the opportunity to underscore an important defensive message about his Mormon faith: "I'll keep my religion out of my politics." Romney could invade Perry's home court and make a Kennedy-style speech to Texas Protestant preachers to drive home the point.
Religious conservatives' influence peaked in 1994, when Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition turned out believers to win the U.S. House for Republicans, rejecting not just HillaryCare but the '60s lifestyle they believed Bill and Hillary Clinton embodied. But move forward to 2010, and the surge that reclaimed the House for the GOP was all about the economy stupid, not social issues. It was a Democratic defeat by Tea Partiers distressed about crashing home equity and 401(k) values, with ObamaCare iconic for spending they felt was killing the economy.