By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Rick Perry, hoping to revive his struggling presidential bid, promised social conservatives on Friday that he would protect the family and restore the economy by getting the federal government out of their way.
The Texas governor, who has seen his lead in polls in the 2012 race disappear in recent weeks, also defended his border policies that have been under attack by some conservatives and said "there is no homeland security without border security."
Perry told the annual conference of social conservatives that he was one of them. He said his opposition to abortion rights was not an "election-year slogan" and he would end the encroachment of federal government into private affairs.
"As a conservative, I believe with all my heart that the government closest to the people is the best," Perry told thousands of conservative activists packed into a Washington hotel ballroom.
"There should not be a single policy coming out of Washington, D.C., that interferes with decisions best made by the families," he said.
Perry was one of five Republican presidential candidates to make a pitch for support on Friday at the influential "Values Voter Summit" of social and religious conservatives who play a big role in the Republican primary contest.
Perry, a staunch conservative and evangelical Christian, had roared into the lead in August after entering the Republican battle for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
But a series of wobbly debate performances and attacks on some of his policies in Texas have knocked him back into the pack behind rival Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Perry's opposition to a fence on the border with Mexico, and his support for cheaper in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants, has deterred some conservatives. Perry addressed their concerns.
"As a border governor, I know firsthand the failures of our federal border policies, and I know the answers to those failures is not to grant amnesty to those who broke the law to come into this country," he said, drawing cheers.
'A COMMITTED FOLLOWER OF CHRIST'
Perry was endorsed and introduced by prominent evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, who called Perry a "a committed follower of Christ," and said evangelical Christians had a choice.
"Do we want someone who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of conviction?" he asked in a clear shot at Romney, a Mormon who is viewed skeptically by some conservatives for his past support for abortion rights and gay rights.
"Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?" he asked.
After the introduction, Perry said Jeffress had "knocked it out of the park."
Romney, along with rival U.S. Representative Ron Paul, will address the conference on Saturday. Attendees also are voting in a straw poll, and results will be announced on Saturday.
All of the Republican presidential candidates describe themselves as conservative, and all of the leading contenders were to address the conference except former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, whose support for civil unions for homosexuals makes him unpopular with cultural conservatives.
Herman Cain, a former pizza executive who has new momentum in the Republican race and has moved into the top tier in polls, told the crowd that "you get it."
"You are not going to let the liberals take this country down," he said.
Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who has based his longshot campaign on his appeal to social conservatives, told attendees he had fought for their views throughout his career.
"I have never put social issues on the back burner," said Santorum, who emphasized his fight against gay marriage. "I have been out there leading the charge."
Many of those at the conference said they were interested in finding the candidate with the best chance to beat Obama and still uphold their conservative principles.
"I could support any one of them," said Wilbur Corbitt of Lake City, Florida. "The most important thing is finding the one we can make the next president."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)