Rick Perry may have forfeited his lead in the Republican presidential field during Thursday night's debate in Orlando when he declared that those who oppose subsidizing college education for illegal immigrants are heartless.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said, after being criticized by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for a Texas policy providing in-state tuition for illegals.
Romney, who vetoed a similar tuition bill in Massachusetts, pointed out that this amounts to a $22,000-a-year discount for illegal aliens, as compared to the tuition that would be paid by U.S. students from the other 49 states attending universities in Texas. "That doesn't make sense to me," Romney said.
It didn't make sense to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum either. "You're sort of making this leap that unless… the taxpayers subsidize it, [immigrants] won't be able to go [to college].… The point is, why are we subsidizing it?… And why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country?"
The crowd at the Orlando Convention Center cheered loudly, as Santorum continued: "And so, yes, I would say that [Perry] is soft on illegal immigration. He doesn't want to build a fence. He gave a speech in 2001 where he talked about binational health insurance between Mexico and Texas. I mean, I don't even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance."
Debate observers -- including a Fox News focus group assembled by pollster Frank Luntz -- seemed almost unanimous in agreement that Perry lost Thursday's debate, which would make him now 0-for-3 in debates since entering the GOP field last month. The Texas governor has seen a clear erosion in his lead over Romney. In taken after Perry announced his candidacy Aug. 13, he had a double-digit lead over Romney nationally, whereas the past five polls show Romney within single digits. A Rasmussen poll released Wednesday showed Perry with just a 28%-24% lead over Romney. And given Perry's weak showing Thursday, he and Romney will probably be neck-and-neck in the next round of national polls.
As in last week's debate in Tampa, Perry seemed to tire midway through the Orlando debate. Smiling and confident at the outset, he became irritable and even at times confused as the evening went on. Perry's attempt to paint Romney as a flip-flopper was so badly fumbled that Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard suggested that Perry had suffered a stroke. While Perry scored some points, he also committed what Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post judged a potentially damaging gaffe when he "declared that he wouldn't move an inch away from his book." Rubin said, "In the book, he favors states being allowed to legalize pot and gay marriage, and repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments. Moreover, it is in that book that he argues Social Security is unconstitutional."
Romney obviously stands to gain most from Perry's stumbles, but other Republican candidates also helped themselves Thursday. Santorum was praised by Rubin and by Jon Ward of the Huffington Post, who said "Santorum gained enormously from another strong performance. He has gathered momentum with every debate -- speaking with authority and expertise on policy and with obvious passion on issues in a way that resonates with the conservative grassroots." Ward suggested Santorum may be positioned to supplant Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann as a favorite of social conservative voters. (Bachmann's campaign is reportedly suffering fundraising problems.) And conservative columnist Michelle Malkin declared: "Herman Cain's passion and personality really stood out.… [H]is personal story, business experience, humor, and faith in the American dream really do add a grass-roots Tea Party flavor to an otherwise bland establishment field."
One quick gauge of the impact of Thursday's debate will be the result of a Florida Republican straw poll Saturday. But however that vote turns out, the question now is whether Rick Perry can live up to his early promise as the conservative alternative to the more centrist Romney. And many of Perry's supporters may agree with former American Spectator reporter Philip Klein, now with the Examiner, who said last night that the Texas governor is "going to have to step up his game.… In short, Perry has not blown it, but he is blowing it."