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JOHN KING, USA

Perry Supporter Criticizes Mormonism

Aired October 7, 2011 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

Tonight, explosive breaking news in the Republican presidential race. A prominent Southern Baptist minister introduces Texas Governor Rick Perry at a conservative forum here in Washington and then ignites a religious war by calling Mormonism a cult and a vote for Perry rival Mitt Romney, a Mormon, something that would -- quote -- "give credibility to a cult."

Tonight, Perry's spokesman tells us organizers of the Values Voter Summit, not the Perry campaign, chose Southern Baptist leader Robert Jeffress to make that introduction. We asked if Governor Perry would repudiate the statements or call on Dr. Jeffress to apologize.

The only response from the campaign was a one-sentence statement that -- quote -- "The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult."

Dr. Jeffress will join us live in just a moment. You see him here at the event with Governor Perry. In his introduction he did not use the word cult or specifically attack Romney by name, but there was no doubt he had the former Massachusetts governor in mind when he drew this contrast.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. ROBERT JEFFRESS, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF DALLAS: Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction?

Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?

Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative. And he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It was in a conversation with reporters after that Dr. Jeffress used the term cult. Jeffress is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. He is with us now from this event.

Dr. Jeffress, you have had this opinion for some time, your criticism of the Mormon Church, but you came today to a political event, an event that is very, very important to Governor Perry who has been stumbling in the polls of late, and you dropped this, what I'm going to call a bomb, going after Governor Romney, why?

JEFFRESS: Well, first of all, as you noted, John, I did not refer to Mormonism as a cult in my opening introduction of Governor Perry.

And I want to make it very clear that Governor Perry had no knowledge ahead of time of what I was going to say. However, this is not an unusual view, John, that Mormonism is not Christianity.

Historical Christianity has never embraced Mormonism as a part of its faith. In fact, for many years, the Southern Baptist Convention did label it on its official Web site as a cult. That's not saying that Mitt Romney's a bad person. I think he's a good person, a moral person, but he dent embrace the historical tenets of evangelical Christianity.

But I also want to say, John, there are plenty more reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney other than his religious faith. And I think conservative have plenty of reasons, leaving Mormonism out of it, not to be energized by a Mitt Romney candidacy.

KING: But you understand the moment, sir. Governor Perry has been struggling, and you came to endorse him today as an individual, to introduce him today. You say you had no conversations with the Perry campaign at all about what you were going to say?

JEFFRESS: No, none at all. I was a guest here of the Family Research Council, not of Governor Perry.

KING: And so you're speaking to reporters after and you say voting for Romney would give credibility to a cult. There are 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States, so your church has 10,000 members. There are 16 million Southern Baptists.

Are you saying, as a preacher in a church that those 16 million people worship in, that they would be giving credibility to a cult if they vote for Governor Romney?

JEFFRESS: Well, I have also said, John, that given the choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I would vote for Mitt Romney. I think it is much better for those of us who are evangelical Christians to have a non-Christian who embraces biblical values in the White House than to have a professing Christian like Barack Obama who addresses and embraces un-biblical positions.

And so, while I am hesitant and would be at this stage, when we can choose a Christian candidate for office, I do think there may come a time when it's going to be the lesser of two evils. And so I would not say under no circumstances would I vote for Mitt Romney.

But it was John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, who said we have the duty and privilege to vote and select Christians as our leaders. And again, Mitt Romney's a good, moral person, but he doesn't embrace historical Christianity. And frankly I'm not sure why that's news. That has been the position of evangelical Christians for a long time. KING: It has been, sir, but it's news that you did this at this event at this moment in time.

You said you would if faced with a choice between President Obama, the incumbent, and Mitt Romney, were he to win the nomination, you would vote for Mitt Romney. But you know at this very moment Governor Perry has stumbled a bit and this was an event that was a stepping stone back from his perspective.

And you decided right now to try to stop Mitt Romney, didn't you?

JEFFRESS: No, that's not true. I was asked personally in a conference after my introduction about why I personally would be hesitant to vote for a Mormon, and I gave a very honest answer, that I felt like it would give credibility to a non-Christian religion. That was me personally.

That had nothing to do with Governor Perry, and it occurred after the event. And, by the way, this is a historical conviction of mine. In 2007, I said the very same thing, was in the news media talking about Mormonism. This is not some new belief of mine or that of evangelical Christians either.

KING: It's not a new belief of yours, but it is an issue, a hurdle sometimes to his candidacy that Governor Romney has tried to put behind him.

I want you to listen to Governor Romney. This is with FOX News Radio just back in September when he was asked about the role of his faith in his candidacy.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I know there are some for whom religion is the most important issue and I may lose some of those votes. But for the great majority of Americans, they want to see this country going again.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: Governor Romney's due to be at that very event where you are, sir, the Values Voter conference. He is due to be there tomorrow. He would not comment on this tonight. Would you spend some time with him? Is there anything he could do to convince you that he is a Christian? He believes he's a Christian. He says he's a Christian and that Mormonism is not a cult. Is there anything he could do to convince you?

JEFFRESS: Oh, I would be happy to visit with Governor Romney any time about that.

I don't hate Governor Romney. I think he's a good, moral person. But as a pastor and as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have a responsibility to proclaim what the Bible proclaims, and that is there are not numerous revelations from God in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. The Bible teaches that there is one way to God, and that is through faith alone in Jesus Christ. So I have to be faithful to my calling as a pastor. And when asked a question by an interviewer after an introduction like I did today, instead of saying no comment, I have a responsibility as a proclaimer of truth to tell the truth.

KING: And as a proclaimer of truth, in your view, will you tell your worshipers back in Dallas, will you go to other places in the country, and express that same opinion, that a vote for Romney would be to give credibility to a cult?

JEFFRESS: I would say that, certainly.

I would say why a Christian ought to vote for another Christian. In fact, this coming Sunday evening in my church, I'm preaching a message on how a Christian should vote, four questions every Christian should ask before they vote for a candidate. And in my new book coming out in January, "Twilight's Last Gleaming," I talk about the issue about why it's so important for Christians to vote for competent Christians.

But, John, the issue goes beyond Romney's faith. He is not a consistent conservative. He has not consistently embraced biblical values that we feel strongly about, like the sanctity of life and like the sanctity of marriage and so I think there are many reasons, even if you don't care about his faith if you're a conservative not to vote for Mitt Romney.

KING: And those are issues that are being litigated in the campaign, in the many debates we have had, being litigated. Governor Perry himself questioned Governor Romney's commitment to the pro-life principles at that event today.

But to use the term cult and to bring his religion into it, when you know it's been an obstacle, an issue for him in the past, that's not by accident, sir.

JEFFRESS: Well, I was asked a question by a reporter and I answered...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: You also put out a press release earlier today about your endorsement and you drew distinctions in that.

JEFFRESS: Yes. That's right. And in that press release, there was not the word cult used anywhere, was there, John?

KING: There was not, sir. You're right on that point.

You said in the speech and in your appearance you would draw sharp distinctions.

I want to ask you something else. We reached out to the Church of Latter Day Saints tonight to see if they had anything to say about your remarks and they said this -- quote -- "We really don't want to comment on a statement made at a political event, but those who want to understand the centrality of Christ to our faith can learn more about us and what we believe by going to Mormon.org."

Have you ever been to the Web site? Have you ever spent any time with Mormon ministers trying to see if there's -- maybe you can bridge the gap between your view of cult and their view that they are Christians, good Christians?

JEFFRESS: Yes, well, part of it, John, it's not an embracing of historic Christianity.

And the term cult, I know that's a very pejorative word to some, but in theological terms a cult is a religion that has a human leader instead of a divine leader. Our leader is Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith is the founder of the Mormon Church. We believe that the Bible is God's sole revelation to man.

The Mormon Church accepts another revelation. And that is the Book of Mormon given by the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. And so by a theological definition, not a sociological definition, a theological definition, they are a cult. But again, so few of your viewers probably even care about that.

For conservatives, there are many more pressing issues regarding the presidency and especially why we need a consistent conservative like Rick Perry than a recent Damascus Road convert to conservative principles like Mitt Romney.

KING: Dr. Jeffress, we appreciate your time.

Let me ask you one last question in following -- Governor Perry tonight, the only statement we could get from him was that he does not believe Mormonism is a cult.

Does that make Governor Perry in your view any less of a Christian because he doesn't agree with you?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFRESS: No, not at all.

There are many Christians who would disagree with me, possibly some of my own church members, John. But again it's all in how you define the terms. I don't think this is the big issue about Mormonism being a cult or not. It's all in how you define the term. I think the real issue is we as Republicans to unseat Barack Obama need a conservative who is one out of conviction, not out of convenience.

And I believe that that's the only kind of person who's going to energize conservative evangelicals to vote. My own feeling is if Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, I believe Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. I remind people all the time, John, that in 2008, 30 million evangelical Christians sat at home and didn't vote because they were not energized by John McCain.

Barack Obama won by 10 million votes. And so for all of the Christians out there who say, oh, a candidate's faith makes no difference there's a large core of evangelicals to whom it is an important issue. When we can select a Christian like Rick Perry or some other Christian, we ought to do so. But again, in the general election, if it's Romney or Barack Obama, I will probably hold my nose and vote for Romney.

KING: Dr. Jeffress, appreciate your time tonight. You have ignited a bit of a controversy. We appreciate your having the willingness to come and explain and explain your views to us. We will keep in touch in the days ahead, sir. Appreciate it.

Still ahead here, tonight's number is a tribute to heroic service.

But when we come back, more on this breaking news story, including an interview with the man helping to organize that event, the Values Voter Summit, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

We will continue our conversation about this breaking political news in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Continue our coverage of tonight's breaking political news. A prominent Southern Baptist minister endorses the Texas governor, Rick Perry, for president, then tells reporters at a conservative event here in Washington that Mormonism is -- quote -- "a cult" and that voting for the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who is a Mormon would be -- quote -- "giving credibility to a cult."

Joining us now is Tony Perkins. He helped organize the Values Voter Summit and is president of the Family Research Council.

Tony, let me ask you straight right up, do you consider Mormonism a cult?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: You know, my role here, John, is not to analyze theologically, but I will tell you this.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Do you consider Mormonism to be a cult? Why is that a tough question?

PERKINS: Well, let me say this, John. I do not see Mormonism as the same as Christianity.

Now, whether it's defined as a cult, I don't know. I would say it's not Christianity the way evangelicals view Christianity. There's a distinction. There's no question there's a theological distinction between Mormonism and Christianity.

But what we're focused here at the Values Voter Summit are values and values issues. And I think what people are looking for is where candidates stand on issues, where they stand on the life issue, where they stand...

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: Wait a minute, John -- where they stand on marriage, where they stand on the family, as well as the other issues.

And Mitt Romney has articulated positions that are consistent on those views. And that's why I think he's comfortable in coming here to speak to value voters.

KING: He's coming there to speak tomorrow. And now he's coming there in the middle of this dustup caused by Dr. Jeffress, who Governor Perry himself raised the life issue in his speech. There was no question he was talking about Governor Romney and what he believes to be inconsistencies.

And Dr. Jeffress raised some issues about the Romney record that are fair game, for better or worse, in the round of politics. But do you think it's fair game for him then to tell reporters -- and he understands, Tony, and you understand moment we're in, in the campaign. Governor Perry has been struggling a bit.

Governor Romney has a big lead in new polls out in New Hampshire tonight. He leads in a poll that came out in Iowa recently. There's a big question about evangelical voters in Iowa and South Carolina. Will this time around more of them perhaps embrace Governor Romney? Maybe they do have reservations about his Mormon faith and then, bang, a minister says it's a cult, voting for him would be lending credibility to a cult.

Is that the message you want coming out of your event?

PERKINS: No, no. And I think it's unfortunate that that was discussed at this time. That's not the purpose of this event.

This is a Values Voter Summit, where people of different faiths -- now, generally, evangelical, social, conservative Catholics are coming together, but people of all faiths. We have Mormons that come here as well because, look, in the last several years Mormons and evangelicals have worked very closely together.

In fact, we would not see marriage as being as well-protected today had not Mormons and evangelicals worked together. I think it's important that we focus on these issues and that's what the purpose of this event is, focus on those issues, find the candidate who articulates and has strong positions that can move the country back in the right direction.

KING: The Perry campaign says they had nothing to do with this introduction, that it was the organizers. I assume that means you or somebody that works with you who picked Dr. Jeffress. Is that right?

And let me add this. Was the Perry campaign then given any heads up that this would be the man introducing him because Dr. Jeffress is on record with these views in the past? I assume the Perry campaign could have stopped this. PERKINS: I think how -- as I talked to my staff what happened is a media consultant approached us about Dr. Jeffress making the introduction.

And I know him, and so we sent it to the campaign. They signed off on it, and he made the introduction. I don't think there was any other communication beyond that. The campaign did not know what he would say. We did not know what he would say.

KING: When did they sign off on it? Tony, when did they sign off on it?

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: I think they were notified a couple of weeks ago that someone had been recommended to introduce the governor.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: It's an interesting point, a couple of weeks ago. Forgive me for interrupting. It's an interesting point, a couple of weeks ago.

Because Dr. Jeffress stirred up this controversy back in 2007 when Governor Romney was running in the 2008 campaign by saying the same thing. You're certain the Perry campaign had a significant, in your view, approximately, two-weeks heads up?

PERKINS: Yes.

Whether or not they, you know, they just took it as a recommendation from us and moved on, I don't know. But we're not going to allow anybody to introduce a candidate unless that campaign signs off on it or at least is knowledgeable about it.

KING: Can Governor Romney come in there tomorrow now and not address this or do you assume he was going to do that anyway?

PERKINS: Oh, look, John, actually nobody here's even talking about it.

This is all in the news on the outside because this was not said from the stage. I haven't even seen the actual comments that were made after the introduction. So this isn't even being discussed here at the conference.

And I think Mitt Romney has been here at the Values Voter Summit every year since we began and every year he has delivered a solid message. In fact, you will recall he won the straw poll one year here. And so I think he's going to come into an environment that people will be very receptive to his message and listening very intently to what he has to say.

KING: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Tony, appreciate your time tonight. We will certainly be watching the event as it plays out tomorrow. (CROSSTALK)

KING: Thank you.

And joining us now to continue the conversation, Republican strategist Ed Rollins, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, and Democratic strategist Paul Begala.

Ed, I want to go to you first because of your experience in Republican politics.

Does this hurt Governor Romney to have this stirred up again? And does this help or hurt Governor Perry to have a minister endorse Governor Perry and then walk into the room and he says he was answering a question but call Mormonism a cult and to say a vote for Romney is to give a cult credibility?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I find the comments disturbing and I think it's not -- Reverend Jeffress is not the only one that shares these views.

Having worked for two evangelical Christians in the last two campaigns, there's certain anti-Mormonism that you find, not by Mike Huckabee and not by Michele Bachmann.

I think the bottom line here is it bothers me as a Catholic who saw great bias against John Kennedy, as a man who is married to a Jew on this holiest of day and the father of a Chinese child. Any one of these things, my Catholicism, her Judaism or her Chinese, could all be issues of prejudice. And I find prejudice to be something that people need to push away.

In the political process, when you call something a cult, you may disagree with Romney on many issues, but he's a devout man, he shares the values that they're talking about at this conference. He's a front-runner of our party. And for anybody to say not to vote for him because his religion is a cult, I find just outrageous and I think it disturbs our party and I think it basically gives the wrong impression of Republicanism.

KING: Paul, you're a Democrat but you do campaign math as well as anybody in the business. For this to happen on this day, at this time, Governor Perry coming to this forum, after he's been stumbling, he's down in the polls, he's had some shaky debate performances, conservatives have seen a few things in his record, on immigration, the HPV vaccine that maybe they don't like -- and then this gets stirred up -- 54 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters identify themselves as born-again evangelicals -- 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus voters I.D. themselves as born-again evangelicals.

I assume this was done with a point.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, from Dr. Jeffress.

I don't think, in defense of Rick Perry, this is going to shock you, that politicians should be held accountable for everything that every supporter says. We tend to do that a lot, chase everybody around the room. And this is not Rick Perry's fault. It's not.

KING: Even with two weeks' heads up, with two weeks' heads up?

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Someone's supposed to run that through LexisNexis. He's from Dallas. If they didn't know it already, the Perry campaign I believe is headquartered in a place called Austin, Texas.

This guy is a prominent mega-church minister in Dallas. If they didn't know it off the surface don't they have a responsibility especially at a time when their candidate is struggling to check out everybody who is going to speak for him?

BEGALA: That's a good point. I'm wearing my Texas lapel pin, my Longhorn tie. Texas is going to beat Oklahoma tomorrow. Aside from the Holy Mother Catholic Church that I worship at, yes cult is Texas.

And yet now my state is represented by an underachieving governor and a prejudiced pastor. I do think that the statement Perry put out post facto -- pre facto he should have caught it. But that could be staff error.

Post facto, he put out a statement that just said, I don't think Mormonism is a cult. He should have spoken out against the prejudice. Rick Perry wants us to believe he's not a prejudiced man. I want to believe that too. He should have stood up. He's not responsible for this. I don't want to be too hard on Perry. But he should have shown some strength.

And I frankly think he looks very weak here in not standing up to what seems to be a very prejudiced position by Pastor Jeffress.

KING: We will continue the conversation.

But, David Gergen, I want to get a first impression from you on this point. Mitt Romney walks into that same event tomorrow. Does he ignore this or does he take it head on?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think Mitt Romney ought to talk about it very much.

I do think Rick Perry should talk about it. I very much agree with Paul Begala. Just issuing a statement through a press release is insufficient.

This statement by the pastor hurts Rick Perry. It does not hurt Mitt Romney. If anything, it may get the issue out on the table where it can be disposed of and we can get on to the more important issues of our time. But this was a statement of bigotry. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a very respected religious group here in this country.

It's the fourth largest denomination in the country. They're a devout people in this religious faith. They have served this country well in all sorts of ways. And for this pastor to label it a cult, it's not just a pejorative. It's a statement of bigotry. And Rick Perry needs to denounce it.

I don't think Mitt Romney needs to say much more about it. He ought to keep his focus on the economy and jobs. But I do -- would note, John, there's an underlying current. Gallup has been polling on this question for some time, and as you know about 18 percent of Republicans say they would not vote for a nominee of their party who is a Mormon -- 27 percent of Democrats, I might point out, say that.

So there is this underlying thing. But I think we need to get rid of it. Go back to Ed Rollins' point. We need to deal with Mormonism the way we dealt with Catholicism and frankly the way we dealt with someone being an African-American and being elected to the White House. Get these prejudices behind us.

KING: Let me call a quick time-out here.

David, Ed and Paul will stay with us.

When we come back, we will also listen to a key Mormon voice, get his perspective on this controversy. We will be right back with more of this breaking political story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's continue our coverage of tonight's dramatic breaking political news.

A prominent Southern Baptist minister endorses Texas Governor Rick Perry for president, then tells reporters at an event here in Washington that Mormonism is -- quote -- "a cult" and that voting for a Mormon, he means the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Perry's rival, voting for a Mormon would give credibility to that cult.

Joining us on the phone now is Dr. Richard Bushman. He's a professor emeritus with Columbia University, a practicing Mormon who has written extensively on Mormon culture and the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Dr. Bushel, I just want to ask you straight up, what is your reaction when you hear a mega-church pastor -- he has 10,000 followers in Dallas, the Southern Baptist Convention has 16 million followers here in the United States of America -- calling your faith a cult?

DR. RICHARD BUSHMAN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Well, I think I would be shocked and surprised, if it hadn't been said so many times before.

When Mormons for sure hear that, they're dumbfounded. The name of Christ is in the church. We take the sacrament, pledge ourselves to Christ. We believe all the basic doctrines about Christ. So it comes as a surprise. But hearing it one more time doesn't ruffle my feathers very much. It's just part of our religious landscape, it seems.

KING: Part of our religious landscape but also part of our political debate. Is this an issue? In 2007, anyone around Governor Romney would tell you that it was an issue, an obstacle, at least a speed bump in places like Iowa, South Carolina, where so many evangelical voters, to have this view reinforced, that opinion, the cult; voting for Romney would be, quote, "a vote that gives a cult credibility." You've mentioned as a religious issue. It's now clearly about to be, if not already, a political issue.

BUSHMAN: Yes. Well, that word "cult," of course, has been used a lot, too. And so I don't that will come as a surprise, and certainly not to evangelicals who have heard that in their churches and for people like Dr. Jeffers many times.

So I think -- I agree with David Gergen, that the most serious consequence is likely to be a backlash. We live in a very tolerant country where people look at other religions with respect. And a cult is a pejorative word. And by using that term, I think the -- those who use it discredit themselves more than they discredit the object.

KING: Help me with a bit of the history. You heard Tony Perkins at the Family Research Council. He says Governor Romney's been there many times, that he personally himself does not consider Mormonism to be Christianity, at least by his definition, but that there has been a bridge built between Mormons and many evangelicals. And yet you have the Southern Baptist leader using the cult term again and giving a clear condemnation of the Mormon faith.

What is the particular challenge with the Southern Baptists?

BUSHMAN: Well, the Southern Baptists are noted for their strict orthodoxy. They're very straight up in all sorts of things. Mormons have very good connections with other evangelicals, not only in common causes, political and social, but also in theologically. Evangelicals have spoken in the Mormon Tabernacle and spoken very highly of Mormons. And Mormons enjoy conversations with evangelicals. So there are many bridges being built.

It just is one little island of a very strict evangelical belief that is centered in the Southern Baptists where the problem remains.

KING: You have Governor Romney in this race. You have governor Huntsman in this race, both Mormons. You have the Democratic majority leader of the United States Senate, Harry Reid, who is a Mormon. And yet very prominent officials -- just three there, and I could name more. And yet this remains a dividing line, if you will, a flashpoint in our politics, particularly when it comes to Republican presidential primaries, why?

BUSHMAN: Well, I think it's a flash point only in certain segments of the population. And granted, that's not a small segment, but Mormons, it's a long history, in which it's been thought of as a very exotic and bizarre religion. And it's taken a century or more to get where we are, where we can even run a candidate for president.

So I think, however, that the erosion is taking place. Having two candidates strengthens the case that Mormons are reasonable, trustworthy people, and the religion issue is going to fade as the time goes by. KING: Dr. Bushman, appreciate your time and your perspective tonight. Very helpful to help us understand. We very much appreciate it.

Let's continue our conversation with Ed Rollins, David Gergen, and Paul Begala.

Ed, I want to ask you the same question. You have, you know, the two prominent candidates for president. You have Harry Reid. If you go out to the west -- I was having this conversation a couple years ago with Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana at the time, and he scratched his head. He said, you know, "I run into Mormons every day at the supermarket, everywhere I go. It's a growing faith out west."

And yet, we know in Iowa last time for Romney, we know in South Carolina last time for Romney, it's a big deal. How do we get over it?

ED ROLLINS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well I think we get over it by whenever -- by challenging people like the reverend. You know the Republican Party, evangelical movement is a very important element of it. And I think to a certain extent there are leaders like Tony and others that basically don't tolerate, you know, religious bias.

And I think to a certain extent, every time something like this happens, we have to stand up, and we have to basically condemn it, call it for what it is. It's a bigotry.

And I think at the end of the day, we're a party that wants to add people. We don't want to be a party that subtracts people. And I think whether you agree or are going to support Governor Romney, what have you, he's an outstanding individual. He's got great moral fiber. He's been an extraordinary leader in my party.

And I think, to a certain extent, anybody who votes against him because he thinks his religion is something they don't believe in, is an intolerant person and I think at the end of the day needs to be condemned.

KING: I want to come back again, David, to you for the challenge now. No. 1, Governor Perry is in Iowa tonight. We have a producer with him, and if he says anything -- he's at a barbecue in Iowa tonight -- after this event. If he says anything about this, we will turn it around as quickly as possible.

You said it's a burden on Governor Perry to say more, David Gergen. How does Governor Romney, though, deal with this in the age of the Internet and the blogosphere and everything else. This will be circulated far and wide, especially into places like Iowa and especially South Carolina.

There's a new poll out tonight in New Hampshire. WMUR has Mitt Romney way ahead in New Hampshire. If he can hold that, do decent in Iowa, win New Hampshire, he really needs to win South Carolina, then he's on his way. That is going to be the biggest question mark. DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John, I think in a context of tomorrow, he doesn't want to continue stirring this controversy up. He's now going to be asked about it in some interviews and then he needs to address it. And I think he'll have answers that will be persuasive for most Americans, probably not all.

It may be that sometime later in the campaign, just as John Kennedy had to give a speech, as you remember, in Texas to Christian ministers, really compelling speech about his religious faith, just as Barack Obama eventually had to give a speech about his -- one of the best speeches of his life in Philadelphia -- about his relationship with Reverend Wright, it may be that Governor Romney is going to need to do a speech later on. I don't think this is the time.

Actually, so far, this issue hasn't arisen, even though it's bubbling below the surface, because there's so much stress about jobs. I think that -- I doubt it's going to be a major issue in the campaign regardless.

KING: Do you agree with that?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's an issue for Rick Perry now. It's a character issue. I don't think he caused this. I don't believe for a minute he put this pastor up to it. So I don't condemn him.

But he should have acted by now. He wants to be a leader, and a leader has to stand for principle. An American leader has to stand for the principle of religious tolerance and say, you know, the Constitution was right in Article 6, Section 3, where there's no religious test and it's not in our American tradition.

Go look at what John F. Kennedy said about the Mormon church. Fifty years ago he was praising that church because he understood that, you know, the winners' circle of America had to include every religion and no religion.

KING: Paul Begala, David Gergen, Ed Rollins, appreciate your help in this breaking news story tonight.

When we come back, the day's over big news, including a jobs report that, most - most months we would say, "Oh, my God, that's horrible." Yet this month, better than expected.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. Here's the latest news you need to know right now.

Attorney General Eric Holder today blasted congressional Republicans who have called him a liar. In a stinging letter to members of Congress, Holder writes he was, quote, "truthful and accurate" when he testified he didn't know about the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms gun smuggling investigation called Operation Fast and Furious. That operation put U.S. guns into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, some of those guns then used in murders on both sides of the border.

In today's letter, Holder writes he, quote, "simply cannot sit idly by as lawmakers suggest that, quote, "law enforcement and government employees who devote their lives to protecting our citizens be considered accessories to murder." Holder continues, quote, "Such irresponsible inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms.

In other news, better than expected jobs numbers today. The unemployment rate held steady in September: 9.1 percent. And employers added 103,000 new jobs.

The Obama administration went to court today to block enforcement of Alabama's new immigration law, which supporters describe as the nation's toughest and critics warned will legalize racial profiling of Latinos.

In Afghanistan, you can make the case that much has changed. Then again, CNN's Nick Paton Walsh recently came across a case of tribal justice that raises disturbing questions about whether anything has changed. A warning before we show you this report: the pictures are violent and quite disturbing.

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NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On his knees, Nawaz (ph), condemned for killing his lover's husband, prays. The father approaches his son's alleged killer. Hold the gun right, he's told.

"Stop shooting, you donkey," they say. The warlord ordered the father to only shoot twice, we're told, but the father just didn't stop.

(on camera) He's still alive, they say. But not for long.

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KING: Disturbing story there.

The war in Afghanistan now is the longest U.S. military action in our history, surpassing Vietnam. That makes ten, as in ten years, tonight's "Number."

Some other numbers about that conflict, we want to bring to you tonight. That's 3,652 days. If you bring it on out, sadly, 1,790 Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan over the past decade. You see especially the last couple of years, the counterinsurgency bloody. And American taxpayers spent $323 billion.

Up next, tonight's "Truth." In making the case, his case, to be commander in chief, did Mitt Romney say anything that warrants an apology? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: At the Citadel in South Carolina today, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, made his case to be the next commander in chief. He disagreed with some of his Republican rivals by insisting the United States must keep its resolve in Afghanistan.

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MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We should embrace the challenge and not shrink from it and not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender.

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KING: Most of the speech, though, was an attack on President Obama's security and foreign policies, including this.

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ROMNEY: Let me make this very clear: as president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American century, and I will never, ever apologize for Americans.

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KING: Here's tonight's "Truth." While he has said some things that have made Republicans mad and are fair game for criticism, President Obama has not apologized for America in the way Governor Romney and many other Republicans assert.

It was top George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove who started all this back in April 2009 when he wrote a "Wall Street Journal" essay labeling Obama's early overseas trips an apology tour. It instantly became a big Republican theme.

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GOV. TIM PAWLENTY (R-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country!

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: I do not believe the majority of Americans share the same views that Barack Obama does when he's out there apologizing for America's exceptionalism.

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think he has made a practice of trying to apologize for America. I personally am proud of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So what is the evidence the Republican' cite? Well, let's take a look at some of them. Exhibit A is this. This is the president in France, back in April 2009.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

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KING: That's one. Here's another one here. The president's conservative critics also cite his June 2009 Cairo speech reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world.

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OBAMA: Nine-11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases it led us act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course.

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KING: Now I can tell you firsthand the president bristles at the apology tour label and the idea he doesn't view America as an exceptional nation. He has, though, on several occasions, including those two we just highlighted, used very deferential language, conceding American mistake, flaws, even arrogance.

Now, he insists being more humble, especially at the beginning, was necessary, again, especially in those early days because of the hits America's image took because of the Iraq war and what the Obama team has called George W. Bush's broader cowboy diplomacy image.

It's a debate certain to continue as Republicans continue to campaign.

Next, in his new movie -- new movie opening tonight, George Clooney is a candidate for commander in chief. How vital is it that that the real president have acting skills? Find out next.

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GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Are you kidding me? I'm going to give certificates of state to a guy that wants to cut the top ten floors off the U.N. Paul, when we started this campaign, I said that I wasn't going to make those kind of deals.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, ACTOR: Governor, if you lose Ohio and the Ketumpses (ph) delegates, then they get North Carolina, then they get the lead. A lead you can't beat. Take his endorsement and the race is over.

CLOONEY: Paul, I respect you. I respect your opinion. I'm never going to do it. So I suggest we find a way for me to win Ohio.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: "The Ides of March" premieres nationwide -- premieres nationwide tonight.

George Clooney is Mike Morris, the Pennsylvania governor and a Democratic candidate for president. Philip Seymour Hoffman you saw in there, he plays Paul Zara, the campaign manager.

Governor Morris is an idealist, the candidate of hope and change, you might say, until he finally accepts he needs a little back-room deal making.

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JEFFREY WRIGHT, ACTOR: I want on the ticket. You need me on that ticket, and you could use my delegates, and you need them before Tuesday. Make a fine story on the Sunday morning news cycle. So I expect to hear from you by noon tomorrow or I endorse Pullman to take that cabin seat.

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KING: Ryan Gosling stars as the campaign strategist, Stephen Myers. Jeffrey Wright you saw there; he's the deal-making Senator Thompson.

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WRIGHT: We're not trying to make any -- any political statements here, but we are, of course, sensitive to the environment that we're -- we're currently facing, which is yes, a very challenging one but also one that makes for fertile ground for good filmmaking.

KING: Any worry at all that it will add or at least just reinforce the sense of cynicism that, "You know what? Politics is broken"?

WRIGHT: That the film will add to that? No, I don't think so. I think the film is just sensitive to -- to the current climate.

It is a pretty divisive time. And I think one of the real unfortunate aspects of it is that we -- coming out of the election, we had so many folks who felt a part of the American fabric in a way that they hadn't previously. I think the most unfortunate aspect of the current dialogue, I think, is the way that we exclude folks from the idea of -- or from -- from their ownership of their Americanness.

I guess when you're at war, one of the tactics is to dehumanize the other guy so that you can, you know, you can attack by any means necessary. But what we found too often lately, I think, in the political world, is that folks are being de-Americanized. And so you have this -- this non-productive dialogue right now that's really undermining our efforts to problem solve and face the challenges in a productive way.

KING: When you're part of this A-list cast, and you're doing a movie that is about politics, do you have political debates? Political discussions during your breaks?

WRIGHT: You know, it was a pretty quick -- quick pace to Clooney's directing. We got in. We did the work. You know, we discussed the scenes of the day, and then we went to lunch. It was all -- you know, obviously most of us were pretty politically aware folks, so certainly, we talked about things.

But really, our primary focus was on -- on trying to wrap our arms around this script and make a good film.

KING: Would George Clooney be a good president?

WRIGHT: You know, I think that it's very difficult right now -- I think the expectation for anything -- anyone running for office now is that they be a choir boy. If there's any actor that's convinced you he's a choir boy, he's giving his best performance. You'd have to ask George that. But I don't know if -- I don't know. I think we've had enough actors in the Oval Office for a while.

KING: Let's go back to the real world for a second about your own politics. You've talked about you want someone who's genuine in leadership. Who when you look at the national political debate right now, who's the most genuine?

WRIGHT: Well, I think President Obama is a genuine -- genuine guy. I think he's really -- he entered into the office with a real agenda to unify the country. And I think that was an honest -- it was an honest attempt made.

Of course, the backlash has been so formidable for him, now that he's facing real challenges. He was facing real challenges there. But I certainly think that his attempts at leadership are genuine.

That's one of the issues in the film that interested me, was the rift between the ego of these political figures and their talent. Whether or not their desire to be in front was a desire to lead a constituency in a genuine way or whether it was, as Martin Luther King might say, a desire to follow the drum major instinct. And he -- by the way, he used that disparagingly.

KING: In this film you're a great actor playing a powerful, good politician. Does a good, powerful politician need to be a great actor?

WRIGHT: Sure, you've got to be a great communicator. That has to be a part of it. But acting isn't so much about pretending, about you know, being deceitful, but really is about wearing -- wearing a mask in order to tell the truth.

But at its core, it's about communicating and affecting people and compelling people. And certainly, it's a part of a politician's requirements. So you need to be an actor but you need to be a few other things, as well.

KING: Jeffrey Wright, appreciate your time tonight, sir.

WRIGHT: Thank you, John. Thank you for having me.

KING: And this full-disclosure footnote. If you listen closely, there are a couple of news reports, fictional news reports in the movie "Ides of March." You might recognize the voice. George Clooney asked me to have a very small part. It was a treat.

That's all for us tonight. Have a great weekend and a safe weekend. We'll see you back here Monday night. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is next. Erin here right now.