First, however, Perry must get through the GOP primary and convince an angry Republican base not to reject him outright for immigration positions many view as heresy. Even though the issue takes a backseat nationally to the struggling economy, it consistently pops up in early voting Iowa and South Carolina, as voters press GOP candidates on whether they're staunch enough against illegal immigration.
Romney and Bachmann both frequently castigate the Texas bill as helping "illegal aliens." Romney allies note that he vetoed a similar in-state tuition bill when he served as governor of Massachusetts, and Bachmann often reminds voters that she backs the building of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
If the blowback from Perry's "have a heart" comment is any indication, he has his work cut out for him.
Bachmann used the phrase to slam Perry in an email to supporters, writing, "If you oppose illegal immigration and don't believe illegal immigrants should be given taxpayer subsidized tuition benefits ... according to Rick Perry you don't have a heart."
And a statement from the campaign arm of Americans for Legal Immigration said, "Rick Perry is finished." The group says it backs people who legally immigrate but opposes amnesty, visa expansion or guest worker programs "designed to reward illegal aliens or legalize their presence" in the United States.
Perry aides brush off the criticism.
They say Perry's talking about illegal immigration in the same way he always has and isn't catering to any one constituency or looking to provoke anyone by suggesting his rivals are heartless or invoking ethnicity. They say he is who he is and he says what he thinks. They say he's being consistent in how he talks about illegal immigration and his policies.
"He's always explained it that way," Perry's top strategist, David Carney, said. "And we have no strategy based on appealing to different groups or different people or primary voters."
The rationale aides provide speaks to a broader political imperative for Perry — defining himself as the straightest-talking, most authentic conservative in the race.
Even so, when it comes to federal immigration issues, Perry hasn't shied away from parroting the standard conservative line.
He opposes the federal version of the tuition law, which Hispanic groups have pushed hard for and which also includes a path to citizenship for students. And during the debate, his staff emailed a news release to reporters that sounded a lot like all the other GOP candidates: "Gov. Perry opposes amnesty and the federal DREAM Act. Washington must first secure the border before we can have any rational discussion about immigration reform. Once that is accomplished, then we can have a conversation about how to address immigration."
Hunt reported from Washington.
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