Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney address… (Carlos Osorio, AP Photo )
Reporting from Clive, Iowa — Rick Perry's campaign is fighting back forcefully to defend his record and reassure supporters concerned about his shaky debate performances, sending the Texas governor's wife on the campaign trail to explain his position on immigration and holding telephone town halls in which the candidate himself engaged voters on those subjects.
During a swing through Iowa, Texas First Lady Anita Perry argued that her husband, who has faced fire about his support for in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants and his opposition to a border fence, was being unfairly castigated.
Anita Perry said she had heard such criticism in Iowa and felt she needed to clarify her husband's positions, saying the state offers the benefit to residents of Texas who have attended a state school for a minimum of three years, have earned a high school degree and are pursuing citizenship.
"It is not a subsidy when you consider Washington has failed to secure the border, has shown no signs of dealing with the millions here illegally," she told about 50 people at a Polk County Republican Central Committee gathering Tuesday night. "States like Texas are left with one of two choices: whether we take care of those populations or they get on welfare, which is greater cost to our taxpayers, or we give them an opportunity to graduate from Texas schools, the opportunity to be a contributing member of society."
She noted that the law passed virtually unanimously, and that her husband had opposed granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, fought against sanctuary cities and recently billed the federal government $350 million for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.
"No one has done more to secure the border, and as president, he is committed to stopping the tide of illegal immigration," she said.
The governor held telephone town halls with party activists in Iowa and South Carolina this week, CNN first reported, to discuss immigration, Social Security and his support for an executive order requiring girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease. Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination have used those issues to cudgel him during the recent debates.
Anita Perry also asserted that although her husband did not have as "polished" a performance as other candidates in recent debates, he was genuine.
Speaking to reporters after the Polk County GOP meeting, Perry acknowledged that her husband had not fared well in recent debates.
"I think he would tell you the other night was not his best performance, but he's only going to get better," she said. "When you have seven arrows being shot at you and you're one person in the middle, 30 seconds of rebuttal doesn't give you a lot of time."
Perry denied that she was referring to her "good friend Mitt" when she described polish, but she said that comparisons between her husband and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were not fair.
"Gov. Romney's been running for president for four or five years, and that was my husband's third debate … on a national stage. I think it's really unfair to compare them to each other," she said.
Perry and Romney, meanwhile, continued to bicker over their records, with Perry accusing Romney of initially praising the economic stimulus and then opposing it in an updated version of his book.
The Romney campaign fired back, showing that Perry had taken a quote out of context, and that Romney had continued, "Not only has the 2009 package already been far less than successful, it will impose a heavy burden on the economy in the intermediate and long term."