By Niall Stanage - 09/28/11 09:00 AM EDT
Rick Perry’s Republican opponents have put chinks in the Texas governor’s conservative armor, turning the right’s would-be white knight into a punching bag on controversial issues.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has hit Perry on illegal immigration, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) has attacked him on the HPV vaccine, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) has criticized him on taxes and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has attacked his jobs record.
The attacks seem to be sticking.
Whether conservatives will make their peace with Perry, despite these doubts, or continue searching for a near-perfect standard-bearer is a critical question.
In the wake of Perry’s stumbles, there has been another groundswell of speculation about the possibility of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie getting into the race. Christie, who has said repeatedly that he won’t be a presidential candidate next year, was due to deliver a speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., a conservative mecca, on Tuesday evening.
Perhaps no moment better crystallized the emerging doubts about Perry than his comments about illegal immigration during the televised Fox News/Google debate in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 22.
There, Perry vigorously — but politically maladroitly — defended the legislation he enacted in Texas, which gives the children of illegal immigrants the right to attend state universities while paying regular in-state tuition rates.
“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought here by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.
The policy itself is problematic from the perspective of many committed conservatives. But the bigger defect for many people was Perry’s suggestion that critics were speaking from a morally inferior position.
Conservative commentator Mark Steyn, acting as stand-in host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, said that Perry was guilty of echoing a “Democrat talking point” built upon “cheap racism.”
The reaction from the grassroots was no kinder. In a posting featured at the influential RedState website, conservative blogger Kevin Ward said that he “had thought Rick Perry was the guy” for voters like him. But the Texan’s immigration comments, he added, were “an affront, an insult to every conservative who has ever had the indignity of being called ‘heartless.’ ”
Perry’s opponents also piled on. Bachmann sent out a fundraising appeal to her supporters that sought to capitalize on the remark. Romney turned Perry’s phrase against him, arguing that opposition to “illegal immigration,” far from being evidence of heartlessness, “means that you have a heart and a brain.”
Even disinterested observers were struck by Perry’s error, as they saw it, in framing opposition to his policy in such moralistic terms.
“It was not real smart, that’s for sure,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. “If I were advising Gov. Perry, I’d recommend he recast his argument.”
This, in itself, seems to echo the general criticism that Perry has received since his first debate on Sept. 7.
“It’s been pretty obvious that he was going to be the conservative or Tea Party darling,” said Trey Hardin, a GOP strategist and a senior VP with VOX Global. “But the way he has responded has caused concerns to those folks. It disappoints them; they feel that they don’t have the candidate they thought they were getting.”
The Perry campaign pushes back against this notion.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner told The Hill that no other candidate “has a more conservative record than Gov. Perry,” who, he said, “has put his time and effort into picking up the slack [on border security] where the federal government has failed.”
Miner also took a passing shot of Romney’s apparent desire to paint himself as more hard-line than Perry on the immigration issue.
“The only fence he knows about is the one around his mansion,” Miner scoffed.
The spokesman acknowledged that Perry is “not a slick politician” but insisted that the desire for such smoothness “is not where this country is at right now. They’re looking for someone who is genuine, open and honest.”
It’s common for the front-runner to be the subject of attack, and Perry has endured as much since his first debate, in which Romney and Huntsman piled on his jobs record.
The Texas governor was hit even harder in his second debate, wherein Bachmann attacked his executive order mandating that teenage girls get vaccinated against the HPV virus, Paul criticized him for raising taxes and Romney hit him on the in-state tuition issue.
The rivals didn’t let up in the third debate, leading to charges Perry had a lackluster performance.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who has donated to Perry in the past but has no other connection to the Texas governor, complained that the debate answer on immigration “took something that should have been a strength and turned it into a weakness.”
Still, none of this means that Perry’s immigration policies, nor his debate performances, have left him fatally wounded. One advantage is that there might not be any credible rival for votes on the right wing of the GOP. The boomlet for Bachmann appears to be over. And despite former businessman Herman Cain’s victory in a recent Florida straw poll, few believe he is ultimately going to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.