Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry speaks at a campaign town… (Elise Amendola, Associated…)
Reporting from Amherst, N.H. — Trying to blunt a backlash from Republicans who balked at his support for tuition benefits for children of illegal immigrants, Rick Perry sought to reassure voters of his law-and-order credentials Tuesday: He brought in Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona to vouch for his toughness on border security.
Pledging to "detain and deport every illegal alien who is apprehended in this country," Perry repeatedly promised to devote thousands of National Guard troops, as well as Border Patrol agents, to securing the border within a year. During a four-stop blitz, the Texas governor scolded the Obama administration for what he called a "catch-and-release" policy allowing nonviolent illegal immigrants freedom while awaiting a court date.
Arpaio, who rose to prominence in Arizona by forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and by leading aggressive raids to round up illegal immigrants, backed Mitt Romney in 2008 and was courted by other Republican contenders this cycle. The Maricopa County sheriff said he decided to endorse Perry because he had been "fighting this battle as a governor."
"He doesn't just talk about it, he does something about it," Arpaio said, calling Perry "an honorable, ethical person" and praising him for devoting about $400 million to border security over the last decade.
Though the sheriff's endorsement was a coup for Perry, its location was something of a mystery. Illegal immigration ranked as the top concern of just 4% of Granite State voters in a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. It has been a far more pressing issue for the more conservative Republican electorate in Iowa.
"Bringing somebody like a sheriff from Arizona is really an indication of not understanding the electorate in New Hampshire," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the survey center.
With just 35 days before the caucuses in Iowa — where Perry's ideology and background is a better match with Republican voters — some were surprised that he was spending time in New Hampshire at all. Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who has invested significant time and money here, has led the Republican field by a 3-to-1 margin for months. Perry won the backing of 4% of voters in the WMUR Granite State Poll released last week.
"I hesitate to ever say that someone shouldn't campaign in New Hampshire … but if [Perry] is going to hope for a comeback, I think he needs to focus more on one state and create something big rather than spread himself too thin," said New Hampshire-based strategist Mike Dennehy, who is unaffiliated. Even more perplexing, Dennehy said, was that Perry would spend the day "campaigning on an issue where he has vulnerabilities rather than on an issue where he has strengths, which are jobs and the economy."
Perry also may have reinforced his reputation for verbal slip-ups Tuesday in Manchester, when he gave the wrong date for next year's general election and misstated the age Americans become eligible to vote.
"Those of you that will be 21 by Nov. 12, I ask for your support and your vote," Perry said to a crowd that included college students. Americans can vote at 18 and will elect the next president on Nov. 6.
While he focused on a swift crackdown on illegal immigration, Perry's visit drew fresh attention to his past debate comment that only heartless Americans would begrudge in-state tuition benefits to children of illegal immigrants.
He was challenged on that view almost immediately. At Joey's Diner in Amherst, a retired nurse told Perry she couldn't understand why the children of some illegal immigrants might get a better deal than her own grandchildren were they to attend college in Texas.
Perry apologized for his remark, calling the comment "absolutely inappropriate." But he noted that "the people of Texas made that decision — by an overwhelming vote." And he went on to defend the policy: "These are young people who came into this state by no fault of their own; they are working towards getting a U.S. citizenship and they pay full in-state tuition."
His questioner, Alice Bury of Amherst, wasn't satisfied, telling reporters Perry "did not appear to be open to rethinking" his policy despite the concerns of many Republican voters.
Bury, who is deciding between Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said she was not as troubled by Gingrich's proposal to allow some of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. "As much as you say, 'I want every one of them sent back,' I think it's an impossibility," she said.
By contrast, she described Perry's stance as an unfair double standard. "You don't give one group of people a break in tuition — I don't care who the group is. It's just not democracy," she said. Sheriff Arpaio, she added, would probably agree.