AUSTIN — Organizers of Saturday's daylong Houston prayer service initiated by Gov. Rick Perry say it will be devoid of politics, but the event will nevertheless put a spotlight on Christian voters and social conservatives who intend to be a potent force in the 2012 presidential election.
And Perry, who often cites his Christian faith, could be a major beneficiary of that voting bloc if he enters the race, say several conservative leaders and analysts. "I think they will look very favorably on his candidacy," said the Rev. Pat Robertson, a Christian conservative leader and televangelist who himself ran for president in 1988.
Called The Response, the gathering in Reliant Stadium has provoked controversy because of what critics say are extremist views by some of its participants toward gays, Catholics and non-Christians. The Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State is holding what it calls a "counter-event" Friday night at a Houston church to protest Saturday's gathering.
Perry, who has said that he doesn't embrace all the views of the participants, describes the service as "a call to prayer for a nation in crisis." As many as 8,000 people, including representatives from Tarrant County, are registered to participate in seven hours of prayer, Scripture readings and inspirational messages. That crowd would fill only a small portion of the 71,500-seat stadium.
The Republican governor will be present for the duration of the 10 a.m.-to-5 p.m. event, spokesman Mark Miner said. Further details of Perry's participation are apparently still evolving, but an announcement to run for president is not on the table, Miner said.
Perry has been reaching out to political leaders and potential donors across the country and could announce a decision before month's end. Several polls have put him in the upper tier of Republican contenders, fanning speculation that he is all but certain to seek his party's nomination.
Even with its nonpolitical billing, The Response seems likely to burnish Perry's credentials among social conservatives, who have been a major part of his political base in Texas. Eric Bearse, spokesman for the event, said participation will stretch across a "diversity of ministries" that include evangelicals and others.
"This event is not about particular public policy issues," Bearse said. "It's about coming together and praying for the country."
At the same time, the event includes groups and individuals who have been influential in energizing grassroots conservatives.
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