WASHINGTON (AP) - Mitt Romney has a new message for those who attack his Mormon religion: Back off.
The Republican presidential candidate delivered it to Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday.
Romney challenged his chief rival to reject the endorsement of an evangelical pastor who claimed the former Massachusetts governor isn't a Christian and belongs to a cult because he is Mormon.
"I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor," Romney said at a news conference in Lebanon, N.H., hours before a GOP presidential debate.
Perry, through a spokesman, refused to disavow the pastor, Robert Jeffress, who heads a 10,000-strong Baptist congregation in Dallas.
Romney's challenge on a highly charged, emotional issue raises the specter of religious bigotry and brings into sharper focus the difficulty Romney faces in appealing to evangelical Christians, a bed rock of Republican support.
"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, and Gov. Perry then said that introduction was just hit out of the park," Romney told supporters gathered at an event announcing an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country."
Jeffress endorsed and introduced Perry on Friday ahead of a Washington speech. Jeffress contrasted Perry's religion with Romney's in his introduction, though he didn't mention Romney by name. When Perry took the stage, he said Jeffress "hit it out of the park."
Later, in comments to reporters, Jeffress went much further.
"Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ," Jeffress said. "Mitt Romney's a good moral person, but he's not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Some evangelical Christians believe Mormons are outside Christianity because they don't believe in the concept of a unified Trinity and because they rely on holy texts in addition to the Bible. For conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy.
Perry was asked Friday evening if he believes Mormonism is a cult. He responded: "No."
"I don't think the Mormon Church is a cult," Perry told the Des Moines Register. "People who endorse me or people who work for me, I respect their endorsement and their work, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I endorse all of their statements."
A day after Jeffress' comments, Romney took the stage at the same Washington conference, where he called on the gathered religious and social conservatives to unite behind the Republican who can best fix the economy.