Updated 10:30 p.m. ET
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Stepping up efforts to consolidate his support among evangelical Christian conservatives, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took his campaign to the heart of the Bible Belt at Liberty University, where he strayed from his conventional stump speech and delivered what sounded more like a Sunday sermon than a political pitch.
In a megachurch-like venue, with a gospel band performing a prelude to his remarks, Perry chose not to explicitly mention the other Republican candidates. Neither did he delve into the recent controversy over his comments comparing Social Security to a "a Ponzi scheme" or his decision as governor to require Texas schoolgirls to be vaccinated against HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer. Rather, Perry sought to connect with his large student audience on a highly personal level, describing his early life in rural Paint Creek, Texas, where his family had no indoor plumbing until he was 5. Still, he felt, the family was rich spiritually if not financially.
Perry made light of his academic struggles, joking that he was in the top 10 of a high school graduating class of 13. After attending Texas A&M and doing a stint in the Air Force as a pilot, Perry said went through a period in which he questioned the purpose of his life, he said, and that his journey brought him to God. His speech was peppered with references to scripture.
"I wasn't one of those people who knew at the age of 12 that he wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or for that matter, a governor or a president," Perry said. "I spent many a night pondering my purpose, talking to God and wondering what to do with this one life among the billions that were on the planet. ... My faith journey is not the story of someone who turned to God because I wanted to. It is because I had nowhere else to turn." He said he believes, "America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is, whose values? ... I would suggest that most of the people in this audience believe it should be those Christian values that this country was based upon. "
His speech, one of the longest and by far the most personal he has delivered since he got into the race for the GOP nomination a month ago, also included the standard call to arms for young people to engage in political affairs. "You are the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9-11," Perry said. " ... Don't leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life. This is your future that we're debating today. Don't be silent."
Founded in 1971 by iconic evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., Liberty is said to be the largest Christian university in the world, with 72,000 students. It has been a required pit stop for presidential candidates courting the evangelical vote since the 1980s, and this election cycle is no different. By the end of September, five candidates for the Republican nomination will have spoken here. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is scheduled to appear at Liberty later this month.
Thousands of people, mostly students, gathered in the Vines Center athletics arena to hear Perry speak, with his image broadcast on four jumbotrons around the arena. In addition to the gospel choir, his remarks were prefaced with a prayer.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the founder's son and the school's chancellor, stopped short of endorsing Perry, but showered him with praise, applauded his record as a social and fiscal conservative in Texas, and even compared him to former President Ronald Reagan. "Thirty years ago this fall, as a Liberty freshman, I sat here mesmerized as a conservative governor from a large state told a much smaller convocation gathered about his vision of America," he said. "Ronald Reagan was that governor and he was selected president soon thereafter, and over the following eight years, he returned America to prominence and prosperity and became one of the greatest presidents in the history of America.
"I have a feeling today that history is about to repeat itself."