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Religion comes to fore in Republican race

The Republican presidential field has moved into a more aggressive phase with a flare-up over religion sparked by a prominent supporter of the Texas Governor, Rick Perry.

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican contender for the right to challenge President Barack Obama, denounced "poisonous language" against religions after the Perry supporter called Romney's Mormon faith a "cult." Perry steered clear of the simmering issue.

Romney, in remarks to the Values Voters Summit – a gathering of cultural conservatives in Washington – did not directly confront the words of Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor. But in a Republican field that has finally settled, his cautionary words served as notice that attacks on faiths should, in his view, be off the table.

Next year's election is likely to be dominated by domestic issues, especially the weak US economic recovery from the recession that has left millions without jobs.

Until now, Romney's Mormon faith and Perry's evangelical Christianity were secondary in a Republican primary focused on who can best fix the economy. Questions about his faith plagued Romney's 2008 presidential run, but he had so far been able to keep them at bay this time around.

That changed when Jeffress, who introduced Perry to cultural conservatives at the Values Voters gathering, said that Mormonism was a "cult" and that Romney was "not a Christian," forcing Perry to distance himself and Romney to respond.

Two other Republican presidential candidates refused to say in television interviews whether they believed Romney was a Christian, while a third said he did not agree with Jeffress's comments. AP