Greenville, South Carolina (CNN) – Rick Perry's wife Anita visited South Carolina's Bob Jones University on Friday, a sign that faith-based organizing is playing a key role in the Texas governor's presidential bid.
It was the first political event at the fundamentalist Christian school related to the 2012 presidential race, school officials said.
Mrs. Perry, a nurse, visited with nursing students and with students from Texas as they ate lunch in a school dining hall. The conversations were quick and light - Perry asked many students when they would be returning to Texas for work - and she gave no formal comments.
School officials said that that Bob Jones University does not allow formal speeches by primary candidates, lest it appear the school is endorsing one of them.
In the last presidential race, Bob Jones III, a former president of the university that bears his name, endorsed Mitt Romney for president. The endorsement surprised many in political and religious circles because many theologically conservative Christians don't consider Mormons like Mitt Romney to be Christian.
Since 2005, Bob Jones University has been led by Stephen Jones, the son of Bob Jones III and great-grandson of the school's founder.
The school's public relations director, Brian Scoles, said that neither Jones had endorsed a candidate in the 2012 race and stressed that such endorsements are personal and do not speak for the university.
Many students on Bob Jones' campus said Friday that they were still making up their minds on who to support in the presidential primaries and did not know much about the Texas governor. Many said the economy and jobs were their top concerns.
"He's definitely one of our favorites because he's conservative," said Taylor Manney, a nursing student, about Perry.
Bob Taylor, a dean at the school who has long been active in local politics, said that he "initially thought that Perry would be my guy because he's a genuine conservative from Texas."
"But the debates have hurt him some," Taylor said. "He's had his stumbles."
After visiting with a few dozen students, Mrs. Perry - clad in a black dress and sequined, leopard print jacket - took a private tour of the university art museum, which specializes in Christian art.
A day earlier in South Carolina, Mrs. Perry said her husband was being "brutalized" by fellow conservatives for his Christian faith.
"It's been a rough month," Perry said in an emotional speech to voters on Thursday. The speech was recorded by NBC News. "We have been brutalized and beaten up and chewed up in the press to where I need this today.
Rick Perry has been sliding in national polls since mid-September, when he put in shaky performances at two GOP presidential debates and lost a closely watched straw poll in Florida that he was widely expected to win. Perry's appearance at Tuesday's GOP debate also garnered negative reviews.
The latest CNN Poll of Polls, released Thursday, shows 14% of Republican voters identifying Perry as their choice for nominee, behind former Godfathers' Pizza executive Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Those numbers reflect a sharp fall since early September, when a CNN/ORC International poll showed 30% of Republican voters picking Perry.
On Thursday, Anita Perry pointed the finger at fellow Republicans, who she said took issue with the governor's strong conservative Christian stance.
"We are being brutalized by our opponents, and our own party," Perry said. "So much of that is, I think they look at him, because of his faith."
Perry's relationship with the influential evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress has come under scrutiny in the past week. Jeffress told reporters at the Values Voter Summit in Washington he believed Mormonism was a 'cult.'
Two men running for the GOP presidential nomination are Mormons, Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Jeffress has endorsed Perry, and introduced him at the summit.
–CNN's Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.