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The Daily Need

Attacks over illegal immigration fly in Vegas debate

Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speak during a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 18, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

When it comes to this year’s GOP race for the presidential nomination, illegal immigration has been a bit of a sore point particularly for Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose  relatively moderate record on immigration has done little to endear him to the conservative base. But in last night’s debate in Las Vegas, the subject of illegal immigration provoked one of the most biting exchanges between Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney that the race has seen yet.

Perry launched the first jab at Romney, accusing him of having hired undocumented immigrants to work in his Massachusetts home.

“Those people that hire illegals ought to be penalized. And Mitt, you lose all your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year, and the idea that you stand here before us and talk that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy.”

Romney countered by attacking Perry’s record on supporting the Texas DREAM Act, a state policy that allows undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition to attend college. In a past debate, Perry irked many conservatives by defending that policy and declaring, “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.” Perry later apologized for the comment, stating that his word choice was inappropriate.

Romney and Perry sparred heatedly and talked over each other for the next several minutes, with Romney explaining how he had hired a landscape contractor who incorporated undocumented immigrants on his crew – but once he discovered the fact, the team was let go. “So we went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals,” he said.

The audience consistently cheered Romney and booed Perry, particularly as Perry’s attempts to speak over Romney provoked the Massachusetts governor to launch into a critique: “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. And I would suggest that if you want to become president of the United States you’ve got to let both people speak.”

NPR’s Frank James writes that Romney’s gaffe may hurt him in the future:

That was just the kind of answer you don’t want to give if you’re a politician many voters have doubts about because they believe you’re cynical, conniving and morally relativistic … That “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals” threatens to haunt Romney through the remainder of the primary campaign season and beyond if he gets the nomination. It was a gaffe forced by Perry’s aggressive use of the issue.

However, over at the Daily Beast, Mark McKinnon writes that Romney artfully defend himself for most of the night:

To pull off successful attacks in debates you have to execute with nuance and subtlety. It has to be artful. Perry just looked like he was throwing buckets of paint against the wall. And a lot of it splashed back. But it was better than appearing asleep with paintbrushes in his pockets, like he did in the last couple debates.

Romney was on defense in this debate. A lot. And some blood was drawn. And his hair was mussed. He had it coming from all directions … But once again, Romney parried fairly effortlessly. He stood his ground and refused to yield. Four years ago, he would have allowed himself to be interrupted. Tonight, he was a battering ram whenever anyone tried to interrupt him. He refused to yield. Which communicates strength. Which is what voters want to see.

And at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf laments that “the demagoguery at Tuesday’s forum would have embarrassed past candidates.”

I interacted with a fair number of illegal immigrants growing up in Southern California and reporting in the Inland Empire. It’s true that they broke the law to enter the country. But the vast majority of them behaved with a lot more integrity and personal dignity than the majority of candidates on the Republican debate stage last night.