Rick Perry's Last Fall Debate: Can He Woo Voters Despite Immigration Concerns?

Rick Perry will enter his last GOP debate for the fall season tonight in Las Vegas with hopes of turning around his faltering presidential campaign. An important message he will need to convey to the Republican base is that he is tough on immigration.

Perry’s once sky-rocketing campaign came to a halt several weeks ago when it was revealed that as governor he supported legislation that gave in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants. He even called the bill’s opponents “heartless.” This prompted his rival, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to call Perry “liberal” for his position. Romney himself has a reputation among Republicans for not being a “true conservative” on many issues.

In order for Perry to gain traction again, “it would probably be best for Perry to talk about how he has handled the immigration issue in Texas,” Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, told The Christian Post.

“He’s on the front lines, after all, and that should give him a measure of credibility. He will continue to be attacked by his rivals given some of the positions he has taken on immigration. I think he has to emphasize both toughness (addressing the problem at the border) and also compassion.”

Brent Connett, policy analyst for the Texas Conservative Coalition, told The Christian Post that Perry has strong record on immigration.

“Prior to the start of the 2011 legislative session, Governor Perry signed the Pledge with Texans.” The pledge was the agenda of the conservative caucus of the Texas Legislature.

“Border security was a top-tier policy item in the pledge that the governor signed, and he kept his word by working with the legislature to include more than $87 million in the state budget for border security. In recent years, Gov. Perry has worked with the Texas Legislature to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to border security operations that have proven successful at reducing border crime and curtailing illegal crossings,” Connett explained.

Immigration will be a major issue in the debate tonight as the GOP candidates are not only jousting for the conservative Christian vote, but the Latino base as well. According to a poll by Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, 42 percent of Latinos name immigration reform and the DREAM Act as the most important issues in the presidential campaign.

Despite his in-state tuition bill, Perry isn’t too favorable among the Latino population. According to the same poll, only 22 percent of Latinos view him favorably while 28 percent view Romney favorably. Candidate Herman Cain is barely known by Latinos. However, 64 percent of Latinos said they would vote for President Obama in 2012.

“There is an opening if the Republicans change their messaging,” said Matt Barreto, polling director for Latino Decisions, according to The Washington Post.

“The problem is that the Latinos don’t know who [the candidates] are, and they aren’t having any positive outreach. They could easily soften their image and their rhetoric and make some inroads, but they are absolutely missing that chance right now.”

In August prior to Perry’s debate performances, polls showed the Texas governor at around 54 percent approval ratings among conservative voters. Since then, those numbers have dropped by about 38 percentage points.

Interestingly, the issue of immigration has also done an about face in the polls. In February, immigration was listed as the seventh most important issue to Republicans. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week, immigration moved up to the fourth most important issue, ahead of health care, energy, and the two wars.

Therefore, the GOP candidate who can best articulate an immigration strategy is likely to garner support from independent leaning conservative voters.

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