MIAMI — Rick Perry is calling his Republican rivals heartless and using ethnically charged language to defend moderate parts of his immigration record. That strategy may endear the Texas governor to Hispanics and their allies even as it angers others the presidential candidate must woo to win the nomination for president.
His in-your-face approach to addressing what many non-Hispanic conservatives consider a black mark on his record underscores the difficult politics at play for Perry. He's a border-state governor who for a decade has taken great care to avoid alienating the nation's fastest-growing minority group. Now he finds himself running for president in a Republican primary whose core supporters are staunchly opposed to illegal immigration, much like George W. Bush did when he ran for the White House.
At issue is a 2001 Texas law he supported that allows undocumented immigrant children to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities if they meet certain requirements and his insistence that a physical border fence is impractical as a way to control the flow of foreigners into the United States. Both issues became flashpoints this month in a series of debates as rivals tried to use Perry's policies to paint him as weak on illegal immigration.
Perry defended himself by using arguments that invoke race, national origin and what it means to be American — issues that resonate strongly with Hispanics, a key voting demographic. He's used the same pitch since the law passed, and standing by it helps insulate him from charges he's backing away from his past positions. The arguments he makes also could easily resonate with moderate conservatives and with independents who aren't Hispanic.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said last week in a debate as he countered attacks from Mitt Romney, his chief rival, and from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
In the same situation a week earlier, Perry invoked race and ethnicity to defend the law that's become known as the Texas Dream Act, saying: "The bottom line is, it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way."
In both cases, many Hispanics likely found themselves nodding in agreement.
"Latinos see it as a race issue," said David Hinojosa, the southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He said Hispanics view opposition to bills like the one Perry signed as anti-Latino stances. "It's very fair for him to portray it as a race issue, because at the end of the day that's what it is."
Or, as Julio Rumbault, a media consultant based in Miami, put it, "The reality is that we have Garcias who are five generations in New Mexico and those that came over the border last week, and they are blending into the society and becoming part of our communities."
"Perry was saying something that makes sense in principle but also makes sense in reality," Rumbault said. "He was pointing to the American tenet of equality as a principle, and whether he meant to or not, he dealt with a reality. Garcias, whether they're five generations or just came over the border, they're here, and they deserve an opportunity for education."
Perry's position could help him attract the support of Democratic-leaning Hispanics in key general election swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. Perry points to his appeal among Hispanics in private meetings with donors when they ask how the plain-spoken conservative is going to win the broad base of voters he'll need to beat President Barack Obama in 2012. He wouldn't need a majority of Hispanic voters to win — just enough to chip away at the overwhelming majority Obama won in 2008.
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, Perry used an interview Wednesday with conservative Newsmax.TV website to reconsider his heartless comment — but not his defense of the policy.
"I probably chose a poor word to explain that," he said Wednesday. "I was probably a bit over-passionate by using that word. It was inappropriate."
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.