Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a point in the debate. (Scott Audette / Reuters )
Finally, Texas Gov. Rick Perry became the piñata he complained that he felt like after the last debate.
And the fireworks between the front-runners, Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, exploded again, this time over the issue of immigration, a serious problem for Perry, whose nuanced record is far more lenient than the conservative wing of his party would like.
Perry, as a border governor, has fallen afoul of many Republicans for embracing a version of the Dream Act, which allows children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities and colleges.
Romney, as Chris Wallace pointed out, vetoed similar Dream Act legislation when he was Massachusetts governor. “But what about Gov. Perry's argument that it's better you get these kids an education and to get them jobs than to consign them just to being a burden on the state?” Wallace asked Romney.
Romney wasted no time slamming Perry. “It's an argument I just can't follow,” he said. “I don't see how it is that a state like Texas -- to go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? It's $22,000 a year. Four years of college ... almost a $100,000 discount, if you're an illegal alien, to go to University of Texas. If you're a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn't make sense to me.”
Perry, as he has done in previous debates, delivered a robust defense of the policy.
An Arizona man, Dave Hollenback, wanted to know: “To date, it appears that you have not tried to stop the illegals from coming. We have high unemployment and a considerable amount of jobs going to illegals.” Wallace added that last year, more than 16,000 children of illegal immigrants took advantage of in-state tuition. “And just generally, how do you feel being criticized by a number of these other candidates on the stage for being too soft on immigration, sir?”
“Well, I feel pretty normal getting criticized by these folks,” Perry said. “But the fact of the matter is this, there is nobody on this stage who has spent more time working on border security than I have. For a decade I've been the governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. We put $400 million of our taxpayer money into securing that border. ... But 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. We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society.”
Earlier, Michele Bachmann staked out a hard-line stance on immigration.
“I would build a fence on America's southern border, on every mile, on every yard, on every foot, on every inch of the southern border,” she said to cheers. “I think that's what we have to do. Not only build it, but then also have sufficient border security and enforce the laws that are on the books."
And she directed her final barb directly at Perry, her rival for "tea party" support: “And here’s the other thing I would do: I would not allow taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens or for their children.”