CONCORD, N.H. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry offered a robust defense of a controversial law granting in-state college tuition breaks to some undocumented immigrants on Friday, saying that his state’s program helps those who might otherwise become “tax wasters” contribute to society.
At the start of a day-long campaign swing in New Hampshire, Perry also tried to brush aside controversies over earlier remarks questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States and whether he will skip upcoming debates, as an aide suggested this week.
Perry met with reporters shortly after filing the paperwork at the State Capitol that makes official his candidacy in this state’s first-in-the-nation primary, which likely will be held Jan. 10.
Asked whether he would make different immigration laws if he had the chance, Perry said no.
“Texas had a decision to make: Are we going to kick these young people to the curb and pay for their existence in our state through social programs or some other type of government dollars — up to and including incarceration?” Perry said. “Or are we going to require that they pursue United States citizenship and pay full in-state tuition?”
Perry added, “Are we gonna create tax wasters or are we gonna create tax payers?”
The in-state tuition law continues to dog Perry’s candidacy, more than a month after the issue was raised in a Florida debate. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s campaign welcomed Perry to New Hampshire Friday by sending reporters a research dossier on Perry’s immigration record titled: “Rick Perry brings his liberal illegal immigration policies to New Hampshire.”
Romney was also campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, and at an evening town hall meeting in Manchester, he took a shot at Perry’s immigration record.
“Some problems are hard: how to stop al-Qaeda and the jihadists from attacking us around the world? That’s hard,” Romney told an audience of roughly 200 New Hampshire voters. “How to stop people coming into our nation illegally? That’s not so tough. Build a fence, have enough people to patrol it and turn off the magnets that draw people here illegally, like giving them in-state tuition.”
Immigration has been one of several issues deflecting attention from Perry’s jobs record and economic plan. Perry was asked about his comments in two interviews published earlier this week casting doubt on Obama’s birthplace of Honolulu.
Asked whether it was a mistake to be linking his campaign to the “birther” movement, Perry said, “I don’t consider making fun of something being a mistake.”
“Look, the president’s the president, and that’s a fact,” he said. “I don’t think Americans see that as anything other than a distraction, just like I see it as a distraction. . . . There are a lot of people in the country that want to distract off of the best job-creation record in America.”
Trying to separate himself from his rivals, Perry added, “Nobody — nobody on that stage can talk about job creation like I can.”
Perry’s campaign aides have said this week that the governor may skip some upcoming debates, but when pressed, Perry, whose campaign has suffered partly because of uneasy debate performances, was noncommittal.
“I don’t know,” Perry said. “There’s gonna be a lot of debates. Shoot, I may get to be a good debater before this is all over with.”
Perry read from prepared text as he made opening remarks to reporters. He focused on his economic plan, which includes an optional flat income tax with a rate of 20 percent. Perry held up a blue postcard to make the point that his tax plan is far more simple than the current tax code.
“Granite Staters get it,” Perry said. “They know that these aren’t just a bunch of talking points. . . . This isn’t just nibbling around the edges. This isn’t just ‘here’s what I’d do if I was the president.’ This is what I’ve done as the governor of the second most-populous state in the nation.”
Perry made an oblique swipe at Romney, who has been drawing support from many establishment figures this fall.
“My campaign is certainly not a campaign of the establishment,” Perry said. “It’s a campaign for Main Street and we’re gonna bring opportunity back to Main Street." Later, he attacked Romney as a flip-flopper.
Recent polls show Romney with a solid lead over Perry, particularly in New Hampshire, where, a CNN-Time poll this week showed Romney with 40 percent, followed by Herman Cain at 13 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) with 12 percent and Perry, 4 percent.
“I don’t pay a lot of attention to polls,” Perry said. “What I do pay attention to are people. I’ll put my record up with anybody on that stage in terms of job creation, and that is what Americans care about.”
Asked whether he could beat Romney here, Perry left no doubt.
“I’m not here just because I like to hang around with y’all,” Perry said. “I’m here to win.”