WASHINGTON – The GOP 2012 presidential nomination contest so far has centered almost exclusively on economic issues: the major candidates blasting President Obama for increasing the federal budget deficit and criticizing one another’s records on health care and job creation.

Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry will start to change that today. Perry, who is expected to announce his presidential candidacy in the next few weeks, is hosting a day of prayer and fasting in Houston dubbed “The Response.”

Attendees from Texas and across the country will come to a football stadium to ask for “God’s forgiveness, his wisdom and his provision for our state and nation,” according to Perry’s video invitation.

The event, conceived by Perry before he considered a presidential run, is one of the most explicit appeals to religion by any of the Republican hopefuls and will closely link his candidacy to his evangelical faith if he decides to run.

“The Response” could help the governor connect with evangelical Christians, a critical voting bloc that could make up more than half of the voters in some of the GOP primaries and a group he would need to mobilize to get elected president.

But liberals are criticizing Perry, highlighting the controversial comments of some of the people he has invited to participate. And some Republicans worry Perry could hurt his prospects of winning the general election if he chooses to highlight religion rather than his record of job creation in Texas.

The event “might play well in Iowa or South Carolina, but I’m not sure how well it plays in New Hampshire, Florida or Michigan. It’s too much of an overt mixing of religion and politics,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who was a top adviser to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., “Rick Perry has got to decide if he wants to run for president or run to replace Pat Robertson.”

The event’s organizers, which include Perry and a coalition of religious figures, have said more than 8,000 people have signed up to attend.

That would make it bigger than any event the other Republican candidates have held this year, but it would also leave tens of thousands of empty chairs in Reliant Stadium, the 71,000-seat stadium where “The Response” is being held. Perry specifically invited his fellow governors to the event, but so far, only Kansas Republican Sam Brownback has said he will come.

From 10 a.m to 5 p.m., attendees, who are encouraged not to eat during those hours, are expected to pray and listen to a series of speakers. Perry has not said whether he will address the crowd, but organizers said major Christian conservative figures such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council are likely to give remarks.

Perry says the day is inspired by the words of the Old Testament book of Joel, in which the prophet calls on the Hebrew people to pray, fast and ask for God’s forgiveness. The Texas governor argues America today similarly needs to ask for God’s help because it is a “nation in crisis.”

“We have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters,” Perry writes in an invitation on the event’s website. “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”

Officially, the event is nonpolitical. Perry does not have a formal presidential campaign staff, and a conservative group called the American Family Association is paying for renting the stadium.

On the website for “The Response,” organizers don’t detail positions on any major policy issues, instead listing seven religious points they agreed on, such as “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”

Some of the groups and figures involved are highly controversial. Following the Fort Hood shootings two years ago, a top official at the American Family Association, Bryan Fischer, said Muslims should be not allowed to serve in the U.S. military. He has also suggested Adolf Hitler and the German soldiers who carried out the Holocaust were gay, and their sexual orientation was part of the reason they orchestrated the mass killings.

A Texas pastor named John Hagee who is listed on the event’s website has suggested Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s plan to drive Jews from Europe.

The Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State planned to hold an event Friday in Houston to protest “The Response.”