MANCHESTER, N.H. — Gov. Rick Perry generally has great political radar, but in the first few weeks of his presidential campaign he walked straight into enemy fire on the issue of illegal immigration.
He’s trying to walk out of it now.
Perry, in media interviews and at town hall events this weekend in New Hampshire, is giving a far more nuanced and detailed answer on why he has taken the now-controversial view that some young immigrants in the country illegally should get the benefit of in-state tuition rates.
Under the 2001 bill Perry signed into law, to qualify, a student must have lived in the state for at least three years, graduated from a Texas high school and promised to apply for permanent residency.
A chief surrogate here, former New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate John Stephen, is also going to bat for Perry, unprompted, and is stressing the governor’s border security, anti-immigration bona fides.
Perry's new approach, with its carefully rehearsed answers, underscore the potency of the immigration issue, which acts as a proxy for the deep economic anxiety across the country. Voters here and elsewhere routinely ask Perry about immigration and border security during question-and-answer periods, and his rivals are running ads against him on the topic. Perry also took pointed questions on Social Security and global warming, but the immigration issue has resonated in a way the other topics have not.
The new formulation unveiled this weekend in New Hampshire underscores the deep hole Perry dug for himself during his uneven debate performance on Sept. 22, when he suggested that opponents of the tuition break don’t “have a heart.” It took an already bad situation and made it worse. The gaffe contributed to a big drop in Perry’s poll numbers, and Republicans seem generally surprised that the longtime Texas governor is out of step with the Tea Party-infused grassroots on this one.
Perry has since apologized for his provocative answer about heartless opponents, and his campaign is trying to reframe the issue on more favorable terrain. When Perry showed up in New Hampshire for a series of town halls that began Friday in Derry, Stephen introduced him and quickly noted that he was the only candidate in the race who had actively fought illegal immigration along the porous U.S.-Mexico border. He also said the Texas governor opposes the federal DREAM Act and any type of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Perry addressed the issue himself the next day, in Hampton on Saturday morning, when local voter Dave Connors of Hampton directly confronted him: “I’m going to kick you in the heart,” he said. “You know where I’m going.” It was another way of saying that illegal immigration is an elephant-in-the-room kind of issue for the governor now.
Connors asked why Perry favors giving “preferential treatment” to illegal immigrants. Perry answered by ticking off a list of initiatives that he said are designed to curb illegal immigration, including hundreds of millions of dollars for border security, a veto of legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses and the recently passed voter ID bill.
He also blamed Uncle Sam.
“The federal government forces us to school young men and women regardless of their immigration status,” Perry said. “Are we going to kick these young people over to the curb and say you cannot have access to college? Because the fact of the matter is there is no way that they could pay the out-of-state tuition.’’
Connors said he seemed impressed with Perry after the exchange.
It didn’t end quite as well Saturday afternoon in Manchester, where retired businessman David Sherman of New Boston noted that Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is now expressing opposition to giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Perry rejected the idea that people are being “subsidized in any form or fashion” and said the legislation was highly popular when he signed it in 2001. He also told Sherman that officials “analyzed it” and determined that it would be more expensive in the long run “if we did not allow them to be educated.”
Afterward, Sherman, a retired Marine and businessman, said Perry seemed “much more polished” at the town hall in Manchester than he did at the somewhat disastrous debate in Orlando. But Sherman said he remained unsatisfied and would likely support Perry rival Mitt Romney in the crucial New Hampshire primary.
“I don’t want to be heartless about it, but if you’re going to give a discount on tuition, you give it to your own people first,” Sherman said. “The only answer is to prevent any reason for them to come here and one reason they come here is for the discounted tuition. It’s just another magnet.’’
Romney, who vetoed a similar tuition bill when he was governor of Massachusetts, has been beating the in-state tuition drum loudly. His supporters kept up the pressure during Perry’s swing here, sending placard-carrying protesters to dog Perry at some of the events, including a chili-cook off in downtown Manchester Saturday.
“Sounds like somebody is scared to me,” said Perry spokesman Robert Black.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said Perry spent his whole trip to New Hampshire trying to “mislead voters” about his immigration record and signaled that Romney would stay on the offensive.
“Our campaign will continue to highlight his liberal record and expose his false and misleading statements about it,” Williams said.