Rep. Ron Paul of Texas pushed aside GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a straw poll at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Paul earned 37 percent of the vote at the annual gathering of social conservatives. He was followed by business executive Herman Cain with 23 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 16 percent, and Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 8 percent each. Romney, who claimed just 4 percent of the vote, was trailed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 3 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 0.
Paul traditionally does well in straw polls, NPR's Don Gonyea tells All Things Considered guest host Robert Smith, because he brings in a lot of people just to vote in the polls.
But straw polls don't necessarily mean much in the big picture.
"This is just one portion of the Republican populace of America," says Gonyea. "These are those for whom social issues — abortion, gay marriage, the family — are the issues. That makes the results kind of skew one way. But still, it does show that there are a lot of people looking at someone like Mitt Romney [and] they don't quite trust him. That's why he finishes way down in the pack at an event like this."
Earlier Saturday, Romney denounced "poisonous language" against faiths as he grappled with a flare-up over religion sparked by a prominent supporter of Perry, his main rival. Perry steered well clear of that simmering issue and pushed another hot button instead: Social Security.
In remarks to the summit, Romney did not directly confront the words of Perry's supporter, who called Romney's Mormon faith a "cult." Indeed, Romney was criticizing another speaker at the meeting who is known for anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and who followed him on stage.
But his cautionary words served as notice that attacks on faiths should, in his view, be off the table. He appealed to the social conservatives to support a presidential candidate who has the best record on the economy.
Until now, Romney's Mormon faith and Perry's evangelical Christianity were secondary to a GOP primary focused on who can best fix the country's economy. Questions about his faith plagued Romney's 2008 presidential run, but he had been able to keep them at bay so far this time.
That changed when a pastor who introduced Perry to cultural conservatives called Mormonism a "cult" and said Romney is "not a Christian," forcing Perry to distance himself and Romney to respond. The back-and-forth suggests the primary race with a field finally settled and just three months before voting begins has moved into a more aggressive phase. And it illustrates that Perry's very public religiosity and long history with evangelical Christian leaders won't remain on the sidelines of the presidential race.
But Perry, campaigning Saturday in Iowa's staunchly conservative northwest, barely touched on religion at all. In stops at Sioux City and Orange City, he never mentioned Mormonism, Romney by name, or even Christianity, for that matter.
Asked by Republican Steven Bernston what books have most influenced him, Perry mentioned only one: the work of conservative economist Friedrich Hayek. Bersnton, a corn and beans farmer from Paullina, later said he was surprised that Perry didn't at least mention the Bible.
"I don't think he's a reader," Bernston said in an interview, noting that Perry used the question to switch to previous statements about his opposition to government efforts to stimulate the economy.
Perry waded back into Social Security instead, a tricky issue for him after he roundly criticized the popular entitlement in his book and his Republicans rivals piled on against him. Responding to a question in Sioux City, he said "it makes sense" to increase the eligibility age for benefits and it may be time to reduce those benefits for the wealthy, a process known as means-testing.
In each of three Iowa campaign stops over two days, Perry took about a half dozen questions from voters, and none from reporters. None of the questioners mentioned Mormonism or asked overtly religious questions.
On Friday, Robert Jeffress, the lead pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, introduced Perry as "a committed follower of Christ." Perry thanked him, and said Jeffress had "hit it out of the park." Afterwards, Jeffress told reporters Romney was "not a Christian" and that Mormonism is a "cult." Jeffress had repeatedly made similar comments during Romney's 2008 campaign.
Mormonism sparks concern among evangelical Christians, a critical bloc of voters in the Republican primary. Many do not believe that Mormons are Christian because they also rely on the Book of Mormon as a holy text, which they view as deviating from the Jesus Christ who is portrayed in the Bible.
At an event in Iowa later Friday, Perry was asked if he believes Mormonism is a cult. "No," Perry said.
On Saturday, Romney answered Jeffress' charge: He praised former Reagan official Bill Bennett, who spoke ahead of Romney at the conference. "You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say," said Bennett, denouncing Jeffress for "bigotry" against Mormons.
"Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett!" Romney said as soon as he took to the podium.
It was a subtle but unmistakable rebuttal. Romney also asked Jay Selukow, a conservative lawyer who publicly debated Jeffress over Romney's religion in 2008, to introduce him. And Romney's campaign had been in touch with Bennett ahead of the conference because they were concerned about a different speaker, American Family Association Bryan Fischer, Bennett told The Associated Press.
Bennett called for unity among conservatives as they choose a nominee for president in 2012.
Romney echoed that call in his remarks. "We should remember that decency and civility are values too. One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think," Romney said, referring to Fischer, who has made anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim remarks in the past. "Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind."
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.