While it will probably not translate into a campaign ad, Rick Perry had a damaging gaffe in last night’s GOP debate. In defending his decision to provide in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, Perry declared: “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.”
You could almost hear the conservative universe cringe in unison.
As Rick Santorum quickly responded, no one on the stage was suggesting that these children shouldn’t be able to go to a college or university. They were asking why American citizens from out of state have to scrimp and save and borrow to pay full tuition at Texas schools, while the children of illegal immigrants get preferential treatment and a subsidized education.
It is a fair question, and Perry did himself no favors by questioning the motives and humanity of those who ask it or disagree with his approach. This comment will come back to haunt him. To win the nomination, Perry needs to attract the votes of conservatives who want to support him but are struggling with a number of questions. They are struggling with his underwhelming debate performances and with whether they believe he can go toe-to-toe with President Obama and win. And they are struggling with whether they can overlook their disagreement with him on illegal immigration. Perry just told those conservatives that they don’t have a heart. It was an unfortunate statement that may do him far more damage than the attacks on his immigration positions leveled by the other candidates.