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In New Hampshire, Perry Pivots on Immigration Answer

Immigration looked likely to dominate Rick Perry's visit to New Hampshire this weekend — and dominate it did. Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune reports on Perry's attempt to reformulate his answer to a question that has dogged his campaign.

Perry talking to supporter while touring the Manchester NH Chili Festival

Even before Gov. Rick Perry’s first weekend event in New Hampshire, it was obvious immigration was going to steal the spotlight. 

A woman wearing a sombrero in front of the governor's Friday night event held a sign and yelled at passing cars, “Thanks for the free tuition, Governor Perry!”

The barbed jab at Perry echoed criticism that Perry has faced since saying at a recent Republican debate that those who who didn't support his 2001 law extending in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants were heartless.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“Let me share with you the story," Perry said when asked about the law at a gathering in Manchester. "And I think it’s an appropriate one for us as Americans to really get our arms around.”

Off the debate stage, Perry had recalculated his anwer. “There’s not anybody standing on that stage asking you for their vote for the Republican nominee that has any stronger record on immigration than I do," Perry said.

Step one for Perry over the weekend: Affirm that he’s tough on immigration, no matter what people think about the tuition law.

“I vetoed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to have a driver's license in Texas," Perry told the crowd. "I have sent over $400 million to the border of Mexico in the form of Texas Ranger recon teams. I helped pass and signed a voter ID bill in the state of Texas.” He also mentioned his attempt to pass a so-called sanctuary cities bill, which failed in this year's legislative session.

Step two for Perry: Blame the federal government.

“We have for decades had a federal government that has absolutely failed in its constitutional duty to defend our border," Perry said.

Perry believes federal inaction has led to the new wave of anti-immigration laws passed in states like Arizona and Alabama. Perry threw his support behind Arizona after the federal government sued the state, even though he has repeatedly said he doesn’t think the bill would work in Texas. He also told the crowds he understands if none of the other states would want to pass the Texas tuition law.

“We decided as a state, and this is a state issue — this is not a federal issue," Perry said. "And there’s not reflection on any state here other than Texas."

Perry has mentioned each of these arguments separately during campaign stops and in his three debates. But Saturday was the first time he had assembled one comprehensive answer. When a campaign spokesman was asked why the governor hadn’t used this answer during the debates, he said the answer Perry gave on Saturday took about three minutes — not the 30 to 60 seconds allowed at a debate.

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