WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney called on Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on Tuesday to "repudiate" the Texas pastor who called Mormonism a cult and said that evangelicals should support Perry because he is a "follower of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Romney's comments on the matter were his most expansive since Rev. Robert Jeffress first injected the issue into the Republican presidential primary on Friday. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Gov. Perry selected an individual to introduce him who then used religion as a basis for which he said he would endorse Gov. Perry and a reason to not support me. Gov. Perry then said that introduction just hit it out of the park," Romney said.
"I just don’t believe that that kind of divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country. I believe in the spirit of the founders, when they suggested in crafting this country that we would be a nation that tolerated other people, different faiths -- that we’d be a place of religious diversity," Romney continued.
He concluded, "I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor."
Perry spokesman Mark Miner rejected Romney's demand, calling his comments "a distraction."
"Gov. Perry is going to focus his campaign on improving the economy and creating jobs, issues that matter to Americans. Mitt Romney's comments are a distraction from the the fact that Romneycare served as a blueprint for Obamacare," Miner told The Huffington Post in an email.
The Perry campaign later shot back at Romney, seeking to turn the conversation back to Romney's 2006 health care overhaul in Massachusetts and new stories about former Romney advisers who went on to work with the Obama White House on the national program.
"Romney Should Repudiate Government-Mandated Health Care," the Perry campaign emailed reporters.
When Jeffress first made his remarks at a meeting of social conservatives in Washington on Friday, Romney did not immediately engage directly. He made references to Jeffress' comments in his speech at the same gathering on Saturday, but did not call out Perry or the reverend directly.
But in saying that Perry "selected" Jeffress to introduce him, Romney showed an inclination to press the issue and to make Perry's campaign pay for having approved the Texas pastor to speak right before Perry. The Perry campaign initially said Friday that the organizers of the meeting in Washington had selected Jeffress to speak. In fact, that was only a partial truth that obscured their involvement. They later acknowledged that they had signed off on Jeffress when asked by the organizers.
By taking such a forceful stance on the issue, Romney also virtually guaranteed that Perry would be asked about it at a debate with all the Republican presidential candidates on Tuesday night.
Romney made his comments after being endorsed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in New Hampshire, a huge boost for Romney's campaign.
Christie also slammed Jeffress' remarks, saying that "these type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody’s ability to lead."
"Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States in my view," Christie said.