Houston Chronicle: Rick Perry last week was trying to walk his way back from a campaign precipice by traipsing around New Hampshire in the company of immigration hard-liner Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Ariz.
Newt Gingrich was betting that his more nuanced and "humane" position on illegal immigration would not undermine his surging campaign.
And Mitt Romney was trying to stake out an immigration position to the right of both his opponents, even as they, and the Democrats, attempted to portray him as being opportunistically elastic on the issue.
During a campaign season in which the economy was supposed to be the GOP's winning issue, immigration could turn out to be the campaign winnower. Perry was the first to feel the scythe, while Gingrich has been forced to fend off attacks from his opponents and tea-party purists on the issue. His proposal for a path to legalization, but not citizenship, for a small number of illegal immigrants was enough to earn him what Politico's Ben Smith called "the scarlet 'A' for amnesty."
Puzzles tea party
Meanwhile, voters interested in distinguishing among the candidates found it hard going. "It's a puzzle, definitely," said Julie Turner, president of the Texas Patriots PAC, a tea party group based in The Woodlands.
Perry, now polling in single digits in the early primary states, was among the frontrunners before he drew the wrath of the right in a September debate by noting that Texas allows the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at the state's colleges and universities. He compounded his problem by labeling as "heartless" those who opposed the Texas approach.
"When employment's at 9 percent and you tell employers that if they don't want to pay the tuition of undocumented immigrants, they're heartless, that's hard to recover from," said Steve Deace, Iowa's most influential conservative talk-radio host.
Perry's position, combined with inept debate performances, sent his campaign into a downward spiral from which he has not recovered.
"Perry's in the worst position imaginable," Deace said. "People bring up his name, and the response is, 'naah.' They're indifferent."
Campaigning in New Hampshire with Arpaio, who likes to describe himself as "America's toughest sheriff," the Texas governor promised to deport all illegal immigrants detained in the country if elected president. "And we'll do it," he said, "with an expedited hearing process, so that millions of illegal aliens are not released into the general population with some hearing date down the road."
It remains to be seen whether Perry's hard line in relatively moderate New Hampshire would sway tea party voters and other conservatives for whom immigration is paramount. Fergus Cullen, former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, said it would not.
"First, the small number of immigration hard-liners aren't going to like Perry, because he actually had a good, practical and pragmatic record on this issue consistent with the realities of being a border-state governor," he said. "Second, embracing a guy like Arpaio, with his atrocious record, doesn't help Perry appeal to voters who hold more nuanced views on immigration."
A recent poll found that only 4 percent of likely Republican voters in a state that borders Canada, not Mexico, considered immigration an important issue. The latest polls show Perry with 2 percent of the Granite State vote.
'Let's be humane'
Attention has shifted to Gingrich. Responding to a question at the most recent debate, the former House speaker said that if an illegal immigrant has been in the country for 25 years or so, raising a family, paying taxes and obeying the law, then the government should not expel that person.
"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality, so that they are not separated from their families," Gingrich said.
Romney was the first to pound Gingrich on the issue, labeling his plan "amnesty" and sending out an Iowa mailer touting his record on immigration. Romney, however, has taken positions in the past that closely resemble what Gingrich has laid out.
On Tuesday, Fox News anchor Brett Baier asked Romney what he proposed to do with the more than 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
"You know, there's great interest on the part of some to talk about what we do with the 11 million," he said. "My interest is in saying, let's make sure that we secure the border, and we don't do anything that talks about bringing in a new wave or attracting a new wave of people into the country illegally."
Gingrich also calls for securing the border first. He offers a 12-step plan for border reform that attempts to address the practical issue of what to do about those who already are here. Some, he says, should be deported; others should be allowed to stay.
Gary Segura, a political scientist at Stanford University, said Latino voters would have a hard time distinguishing the position of either candidate. "Gingrich's plan does nothing for the 11 million, but it sounds nicer," he said. "He's not talking about some wildly generous approach to amnesty. It's more rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Turner said she and other tea party voters were waiting to hear more from Gingrich and other candidates before making up their minds. She also noted that their support would be "based on immigration and other issues that are important to us."