LEBANON, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday to "repudiate" the words and the spirit of Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress' attack on Romney's Mormon religion.
Jeffress, a Perry supporter, said last week that the Mormon religion "has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Romney said Tuesday, "I would call upon Gov. Perry to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who's also a Mormon, echoed Romney. He called the issue a distraction, but not before calling Jeffress a "moron."
"The fact that some moron can stand up and make a comment like that, you know, first of all, it's outrageous," Huntsman said Monday on CNN.
"Second of all, the fact that we are spending so much time discussing it makes it even worse. ... As far as I'm concerned, let's stick to the big issues that really matter and leave religion off the table. Last I looked, that wasn't a prerequisite or a requirement for the presidency."
Romney was responding to a question at a news conference at the Courtyard Lebanon hotel. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who has a wide lead in New Hampshire polls, was appearing with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who endorsed Romney.
Romney also said that Perry had chosen Jeffress, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, to introduce him at last week's conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington. But the Family Research Council, which organizes the event, said it had selected Jeffress and that Perry's campaign had signed off on the Dallas preacher.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said that the Texas governor, who was also in New Hampshire for the GOP presidential debate, doesn't think Mormonism is a cult.
"The governor is going to focus his campaign on improving the economy and jobs creation," Miner said. "Anything else is a distraction."
Romney, he said, should "repudiate" his role in government-mandated health care in Massachusetts as the "blueprint" for President Barack Obama's national health care program.
Perry, he added, "doesn't agree with everything that people he meets or people who endorse him believe."
In his fiery introduction of Perry, Jeffress didn't mention Mormonism or Romney, but afterward, he told reporters: "Rick Perry's a Christian. He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. 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."
The pastor said Romney "is not somebody I would vote for, nor would I encourage evangelical Christians to vote for" him in the Republican primary.
At the New Hampshire news conference Tuesday, a few hours before the eight GOP presidential candidates were to debate economics, Christie offered his own criticism.
"These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody's ability to lead," he said. "Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."
(Recio reported from Washington. Lesley Clark contributed to this story from New Hampshire.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY