Last weekend, Rick Perry privately met some 300 conservative evangelical leaders at long-time supporter Jim Leininger’s home near Fredricksburg, Texas. And on Monday afternoon, reported-attendee and evangelical leader Rick Scarborough told TIME he is endorsing Perry: “I was holding judgment,” says Scarborough, who in 1998 founded the group Vision America to mobilize pastors and their congregations to vote on social issues, “but the more I’ve studied and listened, the more I have liked what I have heard.”
Perry first charmed Scarborough, who supported former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for President in 2008, over a decade ago when Perry gave an impromptu personal testimony of his evangelical faith at a 1998 Republican convention. “It was obvious to me as a preacher that it was real, it was undoctored, it was unprepared, it was off the cuff. It really resonated with me.”
The governor had help in winning over the evangelical leader. Scarborough cited Perry’s wife Anita as a major factor in his decision. “I’ve had a chance here recently to hear Anita, much more close and personal,” Scarborough said. “Unlike [previous Presidents’ wives], I find that she holds the same values that he holds.” Indeed, Anita acted as an effective advocate for her husband at the Leininger event, which Scarborough declined to confirm he attended.
Promoting Perry to a crowd of evangelical leaders might not have been as easy as it sounds. Among the questions that Perry fielded from attendees were several pointed inquiries about his decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for Texas girls 6th grade and up and his 2008 endorsement of pro-choice Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. But Scarborough says he’s come to terms with the less socially conservative side of the governor’s record. “I’ve found that even when I’ve had strong disagreements with Rick Perry, once I saw his perspective I could see how he arrived at a conclusion,” he says.
The pastor’s endorsement has real sway. Vision America’s “Patriot Pastor” coalition has 20,000 members, and American Family Association founder Don Wildmon and Left Behind author Tim LaHaye are on the group’s advisory board. Scarborough says he’s already begun making his case to other influential social conservatives. “That’s not to say Rick Perry is Jesus because he is not,” he says. “But when you look at his full body of work, he’s been the best governor we’ve ever had.”
–With Michael Scherer