Considering the boos Rick Perry got in Monday's Republican presidential debate when he gave a full-throated defense of his moderate record on immigration, the issue could cost him some votes in the Republican primary.
His critics certainly think so. One rival for the GOP nomination, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, accused Perry of “embracing an open border with Mexico’’ in a fundraising appeal the next day. An attack group on behalf of another competitor, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is airing a radio ad that raps Perry for backing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
“Conservatives see immigration as a key test, and this is one issue where Governor Perry is outside the mainstream of conservatives and awfully liberal,’’ said John Brabender, a senior adviser to Santorum.
By refusing to back away from his immigration record, the Texas governor may be gambling that the loss of some conservative support in the primary would be more than offset by the points potentially scored in the general election. Hispanic voters are the fastest-growing part of the electorate, with the clout to swing a number of key battleground states, including the biggest prize, Florida.
As the Republican front-runner, Perry can afford to keep his eye on November 2012, unlike rivals who may not survive the earliest primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
“Immigration will cost him votes in the primaries, yes, but it won’t cost him the nomination of the Republican Party because there are issues of more consequence, like the economy,’’ said Republican consultant Noe Garcia, who has advised former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and former President George W. Bush on Hispanic issues. “I think Governor Perry looks at a guy like Barack Obama who has failed to deliver for Hispanic voters and sees an opportunity.’’
Hispanic Republicans say President Obama’s broken promises on immigration reform and the economy makes him vulnerable among Hispanic voters, who backed him by 67 percent in 2008. Gallup’s tracking poll in August found Hispanic support for the president hit a new low of 48 percent.
Republican strategists believe a nominee who can reach 40 percent in the Hispanic community can take back the White House. Perry has been courting Hispanic elected officials in Florida this week and announced a high-profile endorsement from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, that state’s first Hispanic governor, the day after the debate.
“Perry understands that to win the general election, you need to start talking to Latinos today,’’ said Republican consultant Cesar Martinez, who advised Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and Perry’s reelection campaign in Texas in 2002.
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan denied that his remarks on immigration at the debate have anything to do with campaign strategy. He noted that the governor has invested $400 million in border security, signed a law banning illegal immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses, and backed a proposal to allow local police officers to inquire about detainees’ legal status.
“There’s no one in the country who has been as vocal on the need to secure the border or put more money and political strength into it than Governor Perry,’’ Sullivan said. Asked about the governor’s courtship of Hispanic voters, he added, “He realizes Hispanic voters want the same thing as everybody else—jobs and the opportunity to succeed.’’
Florida Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who as the House Majority Leader is the highest ranking Hispanic in his state's government, met with Perry earlier this week in Miami. “I was very impressed with what he had to say,’’ said Lopez-Cantera. He added that he will likely make a decision about an endorsement before the state party’s straw poll next week.
Lopez-Cantera said Perry's participation in the poll will give him a leg up in Hispanic-rich Florida over Bachmann and Mitt Romney, who are not attending the event in Orlando. "It shows he realizes the importance of Florida,'' he said.
Perry's stand on immigration defies the traditional drift of Republican primary candidates toward the conservative wing of the party. Before he bowed out of the race, Tim Pawlenty called his one-time support for cap-and-trade policy a “clunker.’’ Mitt Romney has repudiated his past support for abortion rights.
Attacked from the right during Monday’s debate by Santorum and Bachmann, Perry was willing to acknowledge regret over his efforts to require vaccinations for 12-year-old girls against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. But he stood by his skepticism about the effectiveness of a fence along the Mexican border as well as his support for a 2001 law that allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates.
“The bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way,’’ Perry said. “No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there.… And I'm proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, you go be on the government dole.’’
That line drew boos from the audience, heavily comprised of activists from the conservative tea party movement. Picking up on the crowd’s disapproval, Bachmann said: “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally.’’
Bachmann's best hope of sustaining her campaign is by undercutting Perry among conservative voters. On Wednesday, she met with an Arizona county sheriff known for his outspoken hostility toward illegal immigrants, Joe Arpaio, and called him "one of my heroes.'' On conservative talk radio shows in South Carolina, which will hold one of the first presidential primaries next year, an ad run by a North Carolina group called Keep Conservatives United criticizes Perry for supporting in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. "The difference is clear," the ad says. "To stop illegal immigration, support Michele Bachmann.''