Earlier today, I found myself chatting with a state senator from New Hampshire, Jack Barnes. He is a classic Granite State curmudgeon — 80 years old, outspoken and conservative. But he is supporting the Massachusetts moderate, Mitt Romney. I asked him why he's not for, say, Rick Perry. Barnes didn't hesitate. "His stuff going on down there with illegal immigrant scholarships," he said. "That's absurd, horrible. I don't think he deserves even one shot at it based on that stuff. It's nuts. I don't think Perry has a clue on that."
The immigration issue is devastating Rick Perry, more than I think many have really acknowledged, as they instead chalk up Perry's slide in the polls entirely to his shaky debate performances. But reporters on the trail describe Perry being constantly challenged on the issue. And check out the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which has Perry at 16 percent among Republican primary voters nationwide, down from 38 percent in August. When Republicans were asked in February which issues were most important to them, immigration was seventh on the list, after job creation/economic growth, the deficit, health care, national security/terrorism, energy, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this week's poll, immigration had shot up to fourth — ahead of health care (Mitt Romney's weakest issue), energy and the two wars. Something happened between February and today, and it sure as heck wasn't a surge in illegal immigration, which has in fact been declining. It was a Republican presidential primary campaign, which seems guaranteed to ratchet up this tempers on this issue like nothing else.
Just ask John McCain, whom Perry just might want to seek some counsel from. It was McCain's record of strongly supporting immigration reform, with some sort of path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, that more than anything else nearly snuffed out his campaign in the spring and summer of 2007. He managed to claw back into the race in spite of the issue, which he eventually learned to skirt with a quick line about how illegal immigrants were "God's children too," an agree-to-disagree plea with voters, and a turn to other issues, such as the Iraq surge. Perry is now trying to make a similar pivot, casting his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants — which the Texas legislature passed with overwhelming support earlier this decade — as smart economics, to make sure that young illegal immigrants become productive members of society: "Are we going to have tax wasters or tax payers?" he tells voters. But Perry's opponents are not letting the matter drop, recognizing a clear shot when they see one. Romney, in particular, has shown no compunction about attacking Perry from the right on this issue, despite having supported George W. Bush's aborted push for comprehensive immigration reform in the past and employed undocumented lawn workers at this suburban Boston mansion. He has hammered Perry over the issue in the debates and produced a brutal ad that included lengthy clips of Mexican President Vincente Fox praising Texas' tuition policy, as if that in and of itself was somehow damning.
I asked Barnes why he had supported McCain in the 2008 primaries despite the immigration issue. He told me it had nearly been a deal-breaker but that he shared enough else in common with McCain, such as their war veteran status (Barnes fought in Korea.) "I thought he was full of baloney, but many other issues weighed larger," Barnes told me. He went on about how adamant he is on the issue: "What the Arizona governor did was right on. I don't live in a border state but it's a good thing I don't because I'd be leading the charge and join the Arizona National Guard at 80 years old." He went on: "A lot of people here ask me, 'how do I get my kids into college' and I say to them, 'Go to Mexico and send them into Texas.' Just look, there are going to be a lot of people from Raymond, New Hampshire moving to Mexico to send their kids to college." I asked him what he made of Perry's economic justification for the policy. "'Productive illegal citizens?' That's great," Barnes said. "They'll be so productive they'll put you out of a job. They'll take your job right away from you, and they'll take another American citizen's job away from them. I've got no use for that stuff."