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Romney preaches tolerance to conservatives

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Last Updated 3:10 p.m. ET

Mitt Romney called for religious tolerance and an end to "poisonous language" in a speech to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, one day after another speaker at the gathering attacked the GOP presidential candidate's Mormon faith, referring to it as a "cult."

Appearing before a gathering of religious activists who have been the hardest GOP constituency for him to win over, the Republican presidential frontrunner attempted a difficult balancing act: Associating himself with the group's socially conservative values while distancing himself from some of its members' more intemperate statements.

"Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation," Romney said. "We should remember that decency and civility are values too."

Romney made glancing, but pointed allusions to the controversy sparked when Texas pastor Robert Jeffress - who introduced rival GOP presidential contender Rick Perry at the summit on Friday - told reporters that Romney's religion is "a cult" and "not Christian."

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Perry later distanced himself from the pastor's remarks, which were made out of his earshot. His campaign issued a statement saying that "The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult."

But Perry's own denial, made hours later in Iowa, was monosyllabic. "No," he said when reporters asked whether he agreed with Jeffress' characterization of Romney's religion.

He did not elaborate, and at an appearance in Orange City, Iowa on Saturday, he ignored reporters' shouted questions on the subject.

From the lectern on Friday, Perry praised Jeffress' religion-soaked introduction of him as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ." ,/P>

Said Perry: "He knocked it out of the park."

In his remarks Saturday, Romney picked up on that phrase, to praise conservative talk show host and author Bill Bennett, who decried Jeffress comments as "bigotry" in a speech he delivered just before Romney's.

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"Speaking of 'hitting it out of the park,'" Romney said, "How about that Bill Bennett?"

After gratefully accepting the strong defense of his faith by the speaker who had proceeded him, Romney proceeded to rebuke the speaker who was to follow him for intolerance.

"One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line; poisonous language does not advance our cause."

The reference was to Bryan Fischer, the director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, an arm of the group that sponsored the Values Voter Summit. Fischer has called President Obama a "fascist dictator," told the audience that "every mosque in America is a potential recruiting cell for terror," and that "the next president needs to be a man of genuine Christian faith."

Romney, who brought the audience to its feet only with the mention of his opposition to abortion, linked religious tolerance with a cause near to the hearts of social conservatives: The ability to practice religion in public places.

"The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate," Romney said. "We must continue to welcome faith into the public square and allow it to flourish. Our government should respect religious values, not silence them."

Sarah Huisenga contributed to this report.

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