Four Things to Watch at Rick Perry’s Prayer Rally

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Gregory Bull / AP

Texas Gov. Rick Perry pauses while speaking aboard the USS Midway in San Diego at a Boy Scout ceremony, June 29, 2011.

We know that “The Response,” the all-day prayer gathering that Rick Perry is hosting with the American Family Association, is scheduled to take place on Saturday in Houston. But at this point, that’s about the only certainty regarding the event. Here are four key things I’ll be looking for on Saturday, and why they matter:

How many people will show up? The venue for The Response is Reliant Stadium where the NFL’s Houston Texans play. It’s choice reflects either hubris or wild optimism on the part of the organizers. Reliant seats more than 71,000 and as of this week, approximately 8,000 people had registered to attend the free event. No doubt the stadium will be reconfigured for the smaller crowd. But still, renting the 19,000-seat Toyota Center (home of the Houston Rockets) would have been a safer move. To provide some comparison, the rally hosted by Glenn Beck on the National Mall last August drew an estimated 87,000 participants.

Who speaks at The Response? Although Perry and others have characterized criticism of the event as coming from secularists who object to prayer, most objections have centered on the narrow evangelical nature of the event. This week, 50 local religious leaders signed and released a letter noting that “this religious event is not open to all faiths, as its statement of beliefs does not represent religious diversity” and charging that Perry “is expressing an official message of endorsement of one faith over all others.” For his part, Perry does not seem to recognize concerns about the event’s religious exclusivity. In an appearance on the Family Research Council’s radio show several weeks ago, Perry claimed, “This is a very diverse group,” and listed the names of several Texas mega-churches that were sending members. “We’ve got all kinds of Christian leaders,” said Perry. “We’ve got a bus coming from Tyler, Texas.”

Organizers still haven’t released a line-up of speakers for The Response, although several weeks ago a spokesman suggested to the Houston Chronicle that they would as a way of enticing more Christians to register for the event. Still, it’s a safe bet that the stage will be a who’s who across the conservative evangelical spectrum. A Catholic may sneak in at some point during the seven-hour event. Maybe.

Do any political figures attend? Perry very publicly invited his fellow governors to join him at the prayer event in June. But so far, only Sam Brownback of Kansas has RSVP’d “maybe.” The rest have declined or not answered at all (how rude). Florida Governor Rick Scott will appear via video, but he also showed up at a Tampa doughnut shop to help serve customers earlier this week, so it’s not like he’s turning down invitations these days with his approval ratings approaching single digits.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Texas politicians at The Response, but it’s telling that the event has not become a national political gathering for social conservatives. It may be that at this point in the campaign, people are wary of playing favorites (or appearing to). But attention to the extreme views of Perry’s co-organizers is also more than likely to have scared off many political figures. One Iowa state representative told Politico he found the planned event “a little strange and dramatic” and said he “had some Republicans tell me they were excited about Perry running for president until this Aug. 6 event.”

What is Perry’s role? Ah, the real question. Rick Perry is intimately tied to The Response. Its official website is dominated by a large video of Perry and a signed statements inviting Christians to join him in Houston to pray. Perry supporters emphasize that the event has something the governor has been planning for a long time, before his name emerged as a possible presidential contender. And yet as of Wednesday, according to the Chronicle, Perry’s office was still “evaluating how it would like to handle Perry’s involvement.” Surely his advisers won’t want to put him in the position of applauding extreme and potentially damaging statements from any of the speakers. But if Perry just slips in to kick off the gathering and then is never seen again, does he disappoint religious conservatives by seeming to distance himself from his own prayer rally?

More than anything, the questions that have surrounded The Response highlight what could be Perry’s greatest liability in a national campaign: the Texas cocoon. All cracks about Texas being a foreign country aside, Perry has not been terribly involved in national politics and it’s starting to show. His initial response to New York’s decision to legalize gay marriage–“fine with me”–revealed a man out-of-touch with the fact that national social conservatives are far more concerned about “the gay agenda” than state rights. And his assertion that The Response will be a “diverse” event because it’s attracting conservative evangelicals from different parts of Texas suggests that his definition of “diversity” could use some expanding.

George W. Bush only held office in Texas for five years before he left for Washington–and for only three years before he started exploring a presidential candidacy. But Perry has been in the Texas Capitol for 13 years. That time is the difference between having an ease around those Americans who are religious conservatives and having the belief that all Americans are religious conservatives.