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Rick Perry Blindsided Again In Debate On Immigration, Rick Santorum Has Big Night

First Posted: 09/22/2011 11:32 pm Updated: 11/22/2011 4:12 am

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Once again, Rick Perry got blindsided.

The Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, as in his first two debates, started off with pep in his step, trading barbs with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and giving as good as he got. Yet once again, he came under attack on his right flank from other candidates, and came away looking shell shocked.

In past debates, Perry was taken to task for mandating a vaccine for elementary school students and for cronyism. On Thursday night, it was immigration. Former Sen. Rick Santorum attacked Perry for supporting in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, drawing Perry into a back and forth on the issue.

"I would say that he is soft on illegal immigration," Santorum said. "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."

Santorum called Perry "very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration."

Perry, who has in many ways been the opposite of former President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," said the other Republicans who opposed in-state tuition for children of illegals were heartless.

"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," Perry said.

But Romney scored obvious points on this issue by pointing out that students from states outside Texas have to pay full tuition.

"If you're a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn't make sense to me," Romney said.

The exchange on immigration ended with Santorum interrupting Perry repeatedly as the Texas governor struggled to make the case that you can stop the flow of immigrants from Mexico without building a fence along the entire border.

It wasn't clear what impact the night had on Perry's prospects. He needed to change the dynamic in which Romney drew blood from him and he remained on the defensive. In some ways, he did this. He was far more polished and prepared than he was in the first two debates. He did score some points against Romney, knocking him for changing a line in his book between the hard cover and paperback editions about his view of his health care overhaul in Massachusetts, and calling the health care plan "an absolute bust."

But Perry also had some awkward moments, struggling and faltering when he tried to paint Romney as a flip-flopper. And when asked who he would pick as a running mate, Perry said he would take former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and "mate him up" with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga).

"There are a couple of images I'm going to have a hard time getting out of my mind," Romney joked.

A focus group run by Fox News said after the debate that Romney was the clear winner, and that Perry lost a large degree of support. Romney's poise, confidence and specificity -- which has been a mark of his performance in each debate -- clearly impressed the voters.

What was clear is that 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. With Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) fading as voters question her electability, Santorum may be putting himself in a position to make some real noise in Iowa, which goes first in the primary process. Depending on how Perry does over the next few months, that could elevate the Pennsylvanian significantly.

The line that drew the most applause of the night came from former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

"My next door neighbors two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration," Johnson said. The audience roared.

Thursday night's debate came with the backdrop of a stagnant jobs market, heated budget wars in Washington and a massive sell-off in the stock market with the Dow Jones Industrial average dropping 390 points. The Republican presidential field has, for weeks, argued over which candidate could best turn around the floundering economy. And Thursday proved no different. But the primary has also been waged over separate issues, including perspective platforms and rhetoric on Social Security reform, the efficacy of mandating vaccinations and, perhaps most importantly, which candidate stood the best chance to defeat President Obama.

The polling has been fluid. While Perry has been vaulted into frontrunner status, despite his late entrance into the race, that lead has been narrowed in recent days. In New Hampshire, Romney has even widened his advantage, with a Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday evening showing him with a 27-point lead over his nearest competitor, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). In Florida, the home-state for Thursday night's affair and the fourth state in the primary calendar, Perry is holding to a six-point advantage over Romney, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.

On the periphery remain a host of candidates, some heading in opposite directions. Bachmann, who seemed poised for good fortune in Iowa after a win in August's critical Ames Straw Poll, has been in a prolonged stumble, with staff turnover, verbal gaffes and now money woes weighing down her campaign.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose debate performance had been defined by uncomfortable attempts at humor and un-landed jabs at competitors, has managed to inch up in the polls, ever so slightly. In that same Suffolk University poll, he registered in third place, at 10 percent, more than double where he stood several months ago.

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