WASHINGTON — Republican hopefuls insist the 2012 White House race will hinge on the economy, but it is the conservative hot-button issues of race and religion that currently dominate the campaign.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, which was debated at length when he ran for president in 2008, was decried as a "cult" by an evangelical supporter of his main challenger, Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Race relations ensnared Perry after the Washington Post highlighted the fact that a hunting lodge his family rented for decades had, for many years, the abhorrent name "Niggerhead" emblazoned on a large rock at its entrance.

The prominence already of race and religion, a full 13 months out from the general election, shows how important social issues are for conservatives as they choose a candidate to square off against President Barack Obama.

Americans have always had a Christian president, and until Obama, they've always been white.

The issues remain prickly. Religion swept to the fore last Friday when a supporter for Perry decried Romney's faith as a non-Christian "cult."

Mormonism originated in the 1820s in western New York state. It is the main religious tradition of the Latter Day Saint movement, and is controversial in the United States in part because it fuses Christian theology with teachings that other religious scholars feel are not consistent with standard Christian doctrine.

Perry quickly distanced himself from the remarks, saying he did not see Mormonism -- also the faith of longshot candidate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah -- as a cult.

The supporter who made the comments, Reverend Robert Jeffress, who heads a large Baptist church in Texas, had introduced Perry at a convention of social conservatives as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."

On Saturday Jeffress did not shy away, insisting to CNN that "those of us who are evangelicals have a right to select a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian."

While the next major Republican debate, on Tuesday in the key early-voting state of New Hampshire, will focus on the economy, the candidates who can will no doubt flaunt their Christian bona fides.

Evangelical Christians are a strong force in crucial early-voting states and Romney's religion still attracts debate, especially among many southern Baptists, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

"This is an issue, he has to address it and then move past it," Brazile told ABC News. "Many Republicans wave the Constitution like a church fan, but when it comes to this issue of religion they become silent."

Last week Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, invoked religious imagery during a foreign policy speech when he declared that God created America to lead the world.

On Saturday at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, he largely sidestepped the pastor's attack.

Also ducking the controversy was rising star Herman Cain, who on Sunday declined to directly assert whether Romney was Christian.

"I'm not running for theologian in chief," he told CNN.

Cain is contending with another of America's most contentious issues: race.

The former pizza executive, who surprisingly has surged into the top-tier of Republican candidates, is aiming to become the second black president in a row.

He startled observers on Friday when, asked whether he was upset at how the country had treated him, he responded: "I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some because of the great nation, the United States of America. What's there to be angry about?"

Statistics show blacks are suffering disproportionately during the economic downturn, with their unemployment rate several points higher than the national average.

On Sunday Cain waded in again, saying "I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way."

But he acknowledged last week that he was disgusted by revelations of the use on the Perry hunting lodge rock of one of the most reviled words in the American lexicon.

There is "no more vile negative word than the N-word, and for him to leave it there as long as he did, before I hear that they finally painted it over, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country," Cain said.

Perry's campaign insists his family painted over it at the earliest opportunity and that the word was "written by others long ago (and) is insensitive and offensive."

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore