Gov. Rick Perry’s quick ascent to the top of the Republican field makes him the main target and a hot topic in tonight’s debate. At a panel discussion of national political writers and pollsters earlier today, NBC News Deputy Political Director Mark Murray said it’s easy to see where the Texas governor is getting his boost in recent polling.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“He is riding that 'Tea Party tiger' right now,” Murray said. “We looked in our cross-tabs, and it showed among tea party supporters, 48 percent backed Rick Perry. Only 15 percent backed Mitt Romney.”

But the Tea Party is also producing some of Perry’s most vocal Republican opposition. For some, he’s been too moderate on immigration. His declaration against a border fence drew a couple of boos in New Hampshire over the weekend.

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But University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur says that policy stance could make Perry a better candidate in California.

“The way Perry handles this immigration issue on one hand opens up some vulnerabilities to him in a Republican primary,” Schnur said. “But it at least potentially positions him to address this community in a way that a Republican candidate hasn’t been able to in California in quite some time.”

It will be interesting to see who blinks first in the immigration debate. Will the Tea Party forgive the governor for his immigration stance, or will Perry begin to change his message to better match Tea Party expectations?

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