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Rick Perry walks tightrope on immigration issue

GOP debate

Jae C. Hong / AP

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Rick Perry

Rick Perry

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

The outcome of the conservative skirmish of the moment in the Republican presidential primary — a back-and-forth between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on immigration — will have implications for either candidate should he make it to the general election, particularly in the battleground state of Nevada.

As Romney tries to woo conservative voters by taking a hard-line stance on immigration, he runs the risk of antagonizing Nevada’s growing Hispanic voting bloc, which is expected to be a key swing vote in the general election next year.

Conversely, Perry’s moderate approach to immigration as governor of a border state could antagonize conservative voters while appealing to Hispanics.

As governor of Texas, which deals with both border security issues and a large population of illegal immigrants, Perry adopted a fairly pragmatic stance on immigration, mostly eschewing the caustic rhetoric that has typified the immigration debate.

Even Democrats acknowledge that Perry’s record could be attractive to Hispanic voters who traditionally hew to their side.

“I don’t know if there’s a danger of (Democrats) losing the Latino vote (to Republicans), but he would definitely gain Latino support for his positions,” said Andres Ramirez, a veteran Nevada Latino activist and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus.

During his time as governor, Perry has opposed immigration policies popular with the conservative base he is now courting in his bid to become president:

• He’s described building a fence along the nation’s border with Mexico as preposterous and an idiocy.

• He supported a guest worker program for immigrant labor.

• He does not support an Arizona-style immigration law for Texas that would require police to investigate citizenship status when probable cause exists.

• And — in the move that has garnered the most recent attention in the primary fight — he signed a bill allowing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Texas.

But he hasn’t always supported moderate immigration policy positions. This year, he pushed legislation that would outlaw “sanctuary” cities by allowing, but not requiring, local police to investigate immigration status.

Since entering the presidential campaign, Perry has toggled between taking a harder line on immigration and defending his moderate record as governor.

During a recent debate, Perry accused his critics of heartlessness for opposing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. He then distanced himself from the comment, describing it as inappropriate.

His latest talking points have included stressing border security before debating immigration reform and opposing amnesty.

“We need to mimic what the state of Texas has done,” said Perry’s spokesman Katherine Cesinger. “Texas has increased the boots on the ground, increased the aerial assets in the sky, increased the patrol on the water. He would take that to the next level (as president).”

Perry’s immigration record may antagonize the conservative voters he needs to win in the presidential primary, which could be particularly problematic given his strategy depends on positioning himself as a darling of the conservative right on each of the fronts they care about — both social and fiscal.

“Ticking off even a small percentage of them and letting them go to (Rick) Santorum, or Newt (Gingrich) or (Michele) Bachmann is problematic when you look at the math of it,” said one Las Vegas-based Republican strategist.

Indeed, Perry’s waffling on immigration has accompanied his latest drop in the polls, with a recent Washington Post poll finding two-thirds of Republican and GOP-leaning voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

But immigration likely won’t be the deciding issue in the primary. And if Perry pulls through, his record could draw Hispanic voters from Democrats, particularly as President Barack Obama’s approval rating with Hispanics has dropped.

Likewise, as Romney latches on to immigration as a wedge to drive conservative voters away from Perry he could have the reverse problem should he make it to the general by espousing harsher immigration policies that might antagonize Hispanic voters needed for a Nevada win.

Romney’s camp denies his positions on immigration — which include building the border fence, pushing English-immersion education, supporting Arizona’s immigration law and opposing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants — would alienate Hispanic voters.

“Gov. Romney has consistently supported legal immigration and opposed illegal immigration,” his spokesman Ryan Williams said. “Gov. Perry has supported liberal policies that encourage illegal immigration.”

Democrats are already working to shift the narrative away from Perry as a champion of pragmatic immigration policies.

“You’re absolutely right that he’s taken a very pragmatic, moderate approach to immigration in Texas,” Ramirez said. “But Perry is not advocating for his approach in Texas to be applied to the rest of the country.”

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