By STEVE PEOPLES, Associate Press
HAMPTON, N.H. -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, facing stepped up criticism about his immigration record, has begun trying to counter a perceived weakness by portraying himself as the presidential candidate with the most credibility on the issue.
Perry's Republican rivals for the 2012 nomination have made inroads by highlighting his steadfast support for a policy that gives undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
The aggressive turn to offense on immigration, both by the candidate and campaign surrogates, stresses Perry's decade of experience as a border-state governor to bolster his credentials on immigration and border security.
No one in the GOP field, Perry said at a town hall meeting Saturday in New Hampshire, "has been any stronger on securing our border."
The criticism has resonated with many Republican voters such as Dave Connors, a 67-year-old small-business owner who told Perry that the tuition policy didn't "make any sense."
Perry said it was a state's rights issue that the overwhelming majority of Texas officials thought would benefit the local economy.
The question, he said, was whether undocumented immigrants would be on the "government dole" using state social welfare programs or a subsidized education program that would allow them to become productive members of society.
"In Texas, we made the decision that it was in our best interests as a state, economically and otherwise, to have those young people in our institutions of higher learning and becoming educated as part of our skilled workforce," Perry said. "If you don't want to do that in your state, I absolutely respect that right."
The answer helped ease some of Connors' concerns.
"I'm not anti-Perry, as I was when I came in," said Connors, who had a Perry sticker on his shirt.
The push-back on immigration was evident also at a town hall meeting Friday night in Derry, where former GOP gubernatorial nominee John Stephen said that none of Perry's rivals "has through action, not just words, but action, delivered more and stopped the influx of illegal immigration" than Perry. "We're going to keep talking about that."
In Hampton, Perry went over an immigration record that extends far beyond the tuition issue.
He said he vetoed a Texas bill that would have given undocumented immigrants driver's licenses, helped pass a bill requiring voter identification at the polls, spent $400 million on security measures to help secure the state's border with Mexico, and strongly opposed granting amnesty to people who illegally entered the United States.
"I'm a governor. I don't have the pleasure of standing on the stage and criticizing," Perry said. "I have to deal with these issues."
The criticism isn't likely to subside as his opponents try to knock him from his front-runner perch.
A day earlier, Perry's chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, kept jabbing Perry on an issue that's among the most discussed among conservative voters.
"Governor Perry is desperate to shift attention away from his liberal policies that encourage illegal immigration," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.
The host of the Hampton town hall, conservative activist Jennifer Horn, said afterward that Perry's revamped immigration message was much stronger and comprehensive.
"It is extremely important for him to convince Republican primary voters that he's not, so-called 'soft,' on illegal immigration," she said.
When asked if he successfully convinced her of that, Horn didn't answer directly.
"I want to hear more. I want to hear him be consistent in that message," she said.