Texas Gov. Rick Perry greets supporters at a town hall Saturday in New Hampshire. (Kayana Szymczak, Getty…)
Reporting from Hampton, N.H. — As he fought to right his presidential campaign during a weekend trip here, Texas Gov. Rick Perry repeatedly brandished two talismans.
One was the black Sharpie pen he said he would use to obliterate President Obama's healthcare law on his first day in the Oval Office. The second was a copy of the Constitution, which Perry frequently retrieved from the breast pocket of his sport coat.
The items were intended to reinforce Perry's theme: that he shares the rock-ribbed conservative values of Republican primary voters, despite continued criticism from within the party about his support in Texas for taxpayer-subsidized college tuition for illegal immigrants.
Perry entered the race as the front-runner seven weeks ago, then faltered with a series of debate performances that ranged from lackluster to disastrous. Most recently he has stumbled not only over his tuition position but his Florida debate statement that those who disagreed with it "don't have a heart."
Even as he confronted that fallout, Perry was sidetracked again Sunday by a Washington Post report that a hunting camp he and his family leased in Texas carried a racial epithet as its name. The name — "Niggerhead" — was painted on a 3-by-5-foot rock near the camp's entrance for years, including during Perry's tenure as governor, the Post said.
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan disputed some details in the story, but not the name. Sullivan said Perry's father painted over the rock soon after leasing the 1,000-acre parcel in the early 1980s, but visitors interviewed by the Post said the name had been visible much later.
Businessman Herman Cain, the only African American in the GOP race, excoriated Perry. "There isn't a more vile, negative word than the N-word, and for him to leave it there as long as he did, until … they finally painted it over, is just plain insensitive," Cain said in a Fox News interview.
Perry's campaign later said Cain was wrong about when the word was obscured, and lauded the governor's "long and strong record of inclusiveness."
Before that issue drew attention, Perry's weekend emphasis in New Hampshire was on making up for lost ground. He concentrated on favorite Republican themes: spending, taxation and regulation. He held his fire toward his GOP rivals and instead concentrated his attacks on President Obama, uttering Reagan-esque bromides such as, "There's nothing ailing America that freedom cannot cure."
But audiences returned again and again to illegal immigration. Dave Connors, 67, a small businessman who attended an event in Hampton, prefaced his question with a reference to Perry's debate comment: "I'm going to kick you in the heart," Connors said. "I think you know where this is going."
Perry cast his immigration stance as derived from the Constitution's support for states' rights.
"I want to be clear this is a Texas issue," Perry told a crowd of about 100 in Hampton. "The other 49, I not only defend but respect their right to make the decision on these issues as they see fit for their citizens."
After Perry's comments, Connors seemed satisfied. "I was impressed," he said. "I didn't think he was going to come back that way. But I think during the debate he blew it."
A Republican at a later stop had a different view. Under a big party tent in the soggy Manchester yard of GOP stalwart Ovide Lamontagne, who is running for governor, David Sherman of New Boston identified himself as a former Marine officer.
"Semper Fi," Perry said.
"Ooh-rah," Sherman said. "Something troubles me. Last week, your own lieutenant governor said your support for in-state tuition for illegal aliens was inappropriate. Why do you continue to support this?"
Perry expanded on his earlier reply and put the ultimate blame on the federal government.
"For too long we've had a federal government that would not, and continues to not, put the resources in place — the strategic fencing in place, the boots on the ground, the aviation assets in the air to secure that border," Perry said.
Sherman was not impressed.
"I still don't understand why we are giving them a discount," he said afterward. "I don't understand why they get more for free than we give U.S. citizens or legal immigrants."
Perry opened another potential vein of controversy at the same event, when he suggested that the election might provide a new opportunity to build a trusting relationship between the governments of the U.S. and Mexico, particularly when it comes to fighting drug cartels.
He envisioned American troops working in Mexico, as they have done in Colombia, to help stop the drug cartels that contribute to the country's corruption and economic struggles.
"The way that we were able to stop the drug cartels in Colombia was with a coordinated effort," Perry said. "It may require our military in Mexico working in concert with them to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks."