Rick Perry Sticks To His Guns On Immigration

Texas Gov. Rick Perry spent the last two days in New Hampshire, his first visit since the Republican debate in which he defended a Texas law that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. As Jon Greenberg reports, Perry faced headwinds among Republican primary voters.

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Texas Governor Rick Perry spent the last two days in New Hampshire. It was his first visit since the Republican debate in which he defended a Texas law that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges.

As Jon Greenberg reports, Perry faced headwinds among Republican primary voters in the Granite State.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're waiting for you to get over here.

JON GREENBERG: One of Rick Perry's stop was the 2011 World Chili Championship in downtown Manchester. As soon as he stepped from his black SUV, he was dogged by someone holding a sign over his head. Written on bright pink paper, it read: I Love Legal Immigration. Perry ignored the sign but he and his campaign knew full well that this was a front burner topic among the Republican base.

The night before, at Perry's very first town hall meeting in New Hampshire, Derry resident Jane Manning described her disappointment.

JANE MANNING: They said he was a true conservative. Now what I've heard all, you know, the immigration and all that, it's turning me off because that's important to me.

GREENBERG: The next morning, at the Atkinson Country Club, 66-year-old Tom Eichler said Perry must surely regret his words.

TOM EICHLER: He came across as supporting taking my money and your money to pay for the children of illegal aliens in Texas. I don't want to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENBERG: However much he might have been intrigued by Perry when the Texas governor first hit the presidential stage, this morning Eichler was ready to write him off.

But there's a curious quality about campaigning in New Hampshire. Sitting 20 feet from a candidate and seeing every expression and gesture invites voters to relate to politicians as people. Here's how Perry explained the tuition law in Texas. He said decades of failure by the federal government to secure the border with Mexico forced his state to deal with illegal immigrants; if their children proved themselves worthy of college Texas faced this choice.

RICK PERRY: We either kick them to the curb and pick up the cost of whatever that's going to be later down the road - and we analyze it as they were going to cost us more money if we did not allow them to be educated and become part of the workforce in the State of Texas.

GREENBERG: That explanation didn't work for everybody, but it worked for Eichler.

EICHLER: I was very, very impressed. I thought he did a terrific job. And I was very happy with all of his answers. And I think he showed himself to have a great deal of integrity. And he didn't back off of anything.

GREENBERG: Net result, when Eichler had arrived that morning he was pretty much a Romney man.

EICHLER: I'm not positive I walk the Romney bandwagon yet, but now I'm not so sure.

GREENBERG: Very good. So these face-to-face meetings do matter.

EICHLER: Oh, absolutely.

GREENBERG: This might be a tonic Perry needs to revive his suddenly sagging poll numbers. But New Hampshire's reputation for face-to-face politics notwithstanding, this sort of campaigning touches a relative handful of voters. Most people form their impression of the candidates largely the way the rest of the country does, through television.

And the mere fact that Perry's stumbled during his immigration answer during the last debate worries hard-core and hard-boiled Republicans.

Salem resident Ed Brazier heard the governor in Derry.

ED BRAZIER: One-on-one, he's a good speaker. But in a debate, he can't. And I'm afraid, as a Republican, that if he's the nominee Obama will wipe him out.

GREENBERG: Governor Perry connected with voters in the way he needed to on this visit. But he'll need to show them more if he wants to anchor their support in the primary.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Greenberg in Concord, New Hampshire.

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