Former Gov. Rick Perry, looking to break through in a crowded Republican field for president, is positioning himself as a leading voice against billionaire businessman Donald Trump, whose weeks-old candidacy is already causing headaches for the GOP.
Perry, who has kept a low public profile over the past week or two, delivered a speech Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that was remarkable in its own right. He emphatically urged his party to work harder to connect with black voters and suggested the GOP has occasionally focused too much on state rights at the expense of civil rights.
During the end of his appearance, though, Perry gave reporters another headline in response to a question hinting at Trump's comments that "rapists" and "killers" are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump's remarks, made during his 2016 campaign kickoff last month in New York, have become an uncomfortable topic for Republicans looking to attract more Hispanic voters.
"Let me say," Perry said, "I don't think Donald Trump's remarks reflect the Republican Party."
In a Fox News interview later Thursday afternoon, Perry further sharpened his criticism of Trump.
"I think that was huge error on his part and, number one, it's wrong," Perry said of Trump's characterization of undocumented immigrants. "What I would say is that we want somebody who’s actually dealt with this before, not somebody that’s just going to shoot from the hip. I will suggest to you I know how to secure the border, and the border security is the real issue here."
Perry's campaign, apparently seeing an upside in taking on the divisive tycoon, quickly sent reporters a transcript and video of Perry's appearance, underlining parts of the criticism for emphasis. Perry himself tweeted a link to the materials, repeating that the "real problem is border security" and Trump's "comments are wrong."
Perry's reactions Thursday marked a bit of an escalation against Trump. In an appearance Wednesday on Fox News, Perry simply said Trump's statement on illegal immigration is one "that I certainly wouldn't have made."
Perry nonetheless stood out by Thursday for the overall forcefulness of his comments on Trump. Several other GOP candidates have distanced themselves from Trump when asked about his remarks — long shot George Pataki has called on his foes to denounce the businessman — but Perry and his campaign appeared to go further than anyone else Friday in driving home the criticism.
Perry has taken a decisively different approach to Trump than has Ted Cruz, the other Texas Republican running for president. Asked Tuesday about Trump's controversial comments, Cruz spoke effusively about the billionaire and criticized NBC's decision to cut ties with him due to his remarks.
"When it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump," Cruz said on Fox News. "I think he's terrific, he's brash. I think he speaks the truth. And I think NBC's engaging in political correctness that is silly and that is wrong."
Cruz also suggested Trump should not have to "apologize for speaking out against the problem that is illegal immigration." Cruz did disagree with Trump's suggestion that most people crossing the border are rapists or killers, but he credited the billionaire with effectively drawing attention to "an issue that needs to be focused on."
Regardless of their reaction to Trump's remarks, he remains at least a temporary obstacle for Cruz and Perry, both of whom have trailed him in a round of recent polling. In the latest national survey — a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday — Trump placed second, with Cruz and Perry 8 and 9 percentage points behind him, respectively.
A Trump spokeswoman did not respond for a request for comment Thursday on Perry's criticism.