Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks to the media after a private campaign event in… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )
Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — Six weeks after charging into the Republican presidential contest, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under growing pressure to step up his game after a series of tepid debate performances prompted criticism from GOP activists and elected officials.
Energetic support from his party's most conservative voters has lifted the Texan to the lead position in the polls. But his moderate stance on immigration threatens to put him at odds with many on the right and is escalating the fratricide among Republicans.
Mitt Romney, the man Perry knocked from the top of the GOP field, tried to worsen his rival's self-inflicted wounds Friday. The former Massachusetts governor took aim at Perry's debate assertion Thursday night that those who opposed Perry's support of taxpayer-subsidized college tuition in Texas for the children of illegal immigrants don't "have a heart."
Romney told an audience of conservatives in Florida, "One of the things that I still can't get over is the idea that a state would decide to give a $100,000 discount to illegals to go to school in their state."
"Uh," Romney continued, "I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart. It means you have a heart and a brain."
The combat between the two men, which has hardened markedly in recent weeks, came as Perry's forces tried to tamp down rumblings from Republicans concerned about his middling performances in the recent debates — which, while bearing no actual weight, are one of the few measurements of the candidates until voting begins next year.
Republican worries about the field — first visited upon Romney when he was the front-runner, and now focused on Perry — have become all the more acute as President Obama's popularity has weakened, giving the GOP a much better shot at seizing the presidency than seemed possible mere months ago.
As the leading contender, Perry finds himself the recipient of attacks from the other candidates. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann added her criticisms in her Friday appearance at the same daylong conservative meeting in central Florida.
Like Romney, she reiterated support for a more extensive physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico line, a position that Perry, a pragmatist on border issues, opposes.
To applause from hundreds of conservatives, Bachmann said: "As president of the United States, I will build a fence on our southern border against illegal immigration, and we will not have taxpayer-subsidized benefits for illegal immigrants or for their children."
Perry, who spoke several hours later, focused his attack on Romney's healthcare mandate for Massachusetts residents and made no mention of immigration or the controversy spurred by his remarks.
But in what could be taken as an oblique reference to criticism of his early performance as a national candidate, Perry told the "tea party" audience that, to defeat Obama, it is "not the smoothest debater that we need to elect. We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country."
The Romney camp, which regards Perry's record on immigration as a target-rich environment, directed reporters to an emailed attack by Bachmann's campaign saying the Texan misrepresented his position in Thursday night's debate, when he said that he "supported Arizona's immigration law by joining in that lawsuit to defend it."
In a court filing, the state of Texas backed Arizona's legal right to act independently of the federal government on immigration enforcement. But in 2010, Perry said Arizona's hard-line statute "would not be the right direction for Texas" and expressed concern about provisions that would "turn law enforcement officers into immigration officials."
Concerns among Republican officials about Perry's potential to defeat Obama began with still-unresolved questions about his views about Social Security, which surfaced in this month's debates when other candidates seized on Perry's 2010 book in which he labels Social Security a failure.
"The guy at the top will burden all of us with what he says," said Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from a swing district around Cincinnati, who said he had not decided whom to support. "If he leaves [his comments] open to interpretation, it's going to be something that we're all going be talking about probably a lot more than we'd like to."
Perry's stance on immigration is prompting fresh doubts, in some GOP quarters, about his ability to translate his electoral success in Texas to the national level.
Perry has "a surprisingly tin ear" on the immigration issue, said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist who is unaligned in the presidential contest.
To most Republicans, denying tuition subsidies to illegal immigrants "is a question of fairness," said Fabrizio. He added that Perry, in portraying his critics as heartless, is making Republican voters wonder whether he shares their values.