WASHINGTON -- Hours before Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign threw another immigration grenade at Rick Perry.
Tucked into the middle of a 60-second Romney web ad attacking the Texas governor’s jobs record was one line designed to be particularly inflammatory: "Nearly half of new jobs in Texas over the last four years went to illegal immigrants."
It was subtly placed, but unmistakably designed to further inflame the conservative Republican base, which has been incensed with Perry over his immigration stance. In particular, Perry has provoked anger for saying that those who disagree with his decision to allow children of illegal immigrants to obtain in-state tuition to Texas colleges "don't have a heart."
The Romney campaign attack was drawn from a September study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-wing think tank that favors reducing immigration to the U.S. That study said that "of jobs created in Texas since 2007, 81 percent were taken by newly arrived immigrant workers (legal and illegal)."
CIS estimated that "about 40 percent of all the job growth" during the 2007-2011 period "went to newly arrived illegal immigrants."
But that study has come under some criticism from conservatives who have said the CIS study is flawed. Chuck Devore, a former California state representative and U.S. Senate candidate who is now at a Texas think tank with close ties to Perry, wrote a two-page memo this month arguing that the CIS study is misleading.
However, even in his defense of Perry’s record, Devore says that "immigrants accounted for 54 percent of the net increase in jobs vs. 46 percent for native-born Americans" in Texas between 2007 and 2011.
So while the Perry campaign may try to undermine the Romney attack line by pointing to Devore's column, which was recycled for a piece in National Review on Tuesday, a close look at Devore’s piece will reveal that immigrants have taken more jobs than "native-born" Texans during the recession that started in 2008.
That will be another arrow in Perry's side that will, at the very least, require more explanations to voters on the ground in Iowa, where Perry hopes to make up ground he has lost in the polls.
Perry's path back to being Romney's top challenger rests on a relentless presence on the stump and a laser focus on jobs. He has already been sidetracked on the campaign trail by Iowans' concerns about his immigration stance. And by baking the immigration issue into the jobs cake, Romney has likely made that task more difficult.