ORLANDO, Fla. — Rick Perry went out on a limb Thursday by refusing to back off his support as Texas governor for granting in-state tuition to some of the children of illegal immigrants, and painting critics of the law as heartless — remarks that landed him in the cross hairs of his GOP rivals.
The three-term Texas governor said he still supports the program “greatly” and that the Lone Star State needs “to be educating these children because otherwise they’ll “become a drag on society.”
“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,” Mr. Perry said.
The stance also put Mr. Perry at odds with a chunk of the audience, which booed, and opened him up to attacks from the Republican field, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who said the law carries an annual price tag of $22,000 per student and acts as a magnet for illegal immigrants.
“If you’re a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more,” Mr. Romney said, alluding to the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at the University of Texas over four years. “That doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania piled on the criticism and called Mr. Perry “soft on illegal immigration” and alluded to a Perry speech from 2001 at which the Texan extolled the virtue of studying a “binational health insurance” program between border areas of Texas and Mexico.
“I don’t even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance,” the former Pennsylvania Senator quipped, sparking laughter from the audience. “So I think he’s very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also said it was time to end “the magnet” of U.S. health and education benefits, which she said attracts illegal immigrants.
The dust-up over illegal immigration came toward the tail end of the debate here at the sprawling Orange Country Convention Center, where the candidates generally agreed over the notion of defeating Mr. Obama in the 2012 election and over devolving federal powers to the states, including such whole agencies as the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.
During the two-hour affair, the contenders fielded various questions over health care, the economy and foreign policy — and each each of them appeared to score points with the audience along the way.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is running third in many national polls, vowed to veto every single bill that violates the 10th Amendment of the Constitution.
“Government is too big in Washington, D.C.,” the 12-term Texas Representative said. “It’s runaway. We have no controls of the spending, taxes, regulations, no control on the Federal Reserve printing money.”
Mrs. Bachmann promised to repeal ‘Obamacare’ and continued to attack the executive order Mr. Perry signed in 2007 that mandated that young girls be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted HPV virus, which is known to cause cervical cancer.
Defending himself, Mr. Perry stumbled over his history with a woman who later died of cervical cancer, identified later as 31-year-old Heather Burchman.
“I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31 year old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer,” said Perry. “I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office. She talked to me about this program. I readily admitted we should have had an opt-in but I don’t know what part of opt out most parents don’t get and the fact is I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life as a governor as a president of the United States.”
But Mr. Perry, according to an ABC News fact-check, only met Ms. Burcham after he issued his executive order in February 2007. The meeting occurred when Ms. Burcham was lobbying against a movement in the Texas Legislature to reverse the governor’s order.
On Fox News after the debate, Mrs. Bachmann brought up the misstatement and told host Sean Hannity that it will be a problem for Mr. Perry.
Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain, a crowd favorite, won applause for sharing his story about how he survived Stage 4 cancer, but would be dead under President Obama’s health-care plan. He said “Obamacare” would have resulted in delays for bureaucratic approval on his treatment schedule.
He also pushed his plan to replace the current tax code with three 9 percent levies — on businesses, personal income and sales.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he’d tie unemployment benefits to jobs training program, while Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called for the troops to be brought home from Afghanistan.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson made the most of his first appearance in a post-Labor day debate, calling for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and vowing to veto any bills where spending exceeds revenues.
The former two-term governor also sparked laughter from the audience after telling the audience, “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready projects than this president.”
Fireworks, meanwhile, continued to go off between Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, who traded barbs over Social Security, illegal immigration and jobs — all in attempt to cast their top rival as the proverbial flip-flopper.
Mr. Romney delivered the opening salvo, suggesting Mr. Perry is retreating from statements he made in his book, “Fed Up,” where Mr. Romney said he suggested Social Security is unconstitutional and should be returned to the states.
“There’s a Rick Perry out there that’s saying that it — almost to quote — it says that the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states,” Mr. Romney said. “So you’d better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
Mr. Perry retorted that Mr. Romney is hard to pin down when it comes to mandating health insurance, which he did as governor of Massachusetts in 2006.
“As a matter of fact, between books, your hard copy book, you said that it was exactly what the American people needed to have — that’s “Romneycare” — given to them as you had in Massachusetts,” Mr. Perry said. “Then in your paperback, you took that line out.”
Mr. Romney shot back, “I said no such thing” and went on to defend his plan, casting it as something much different than the president’s health care overhaul.
Later on, Mr. Perry tried to land a haymaker, but stumbled through what appeared to be a rehearsed line.
“I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with,” he said, alluding to Mr. Romney’s stances on guns and abortion, which have evolved over time. “I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
Mr. Huntsman summed up the feisty exchanges in the final minutes of the debate. “I’m tempted to say that when all is said and done, the two guys standing in the middle here, Romney and Perry, aren’t going to be around because they’re going to bludgeon each other to death.”