GOP Debate: Immigration, the Issue that Won't Go Away for Rick Perry, Did

The issue that wouldn’t go away for Texas Gov. Rick Perry – no matter where the presidential contender went to campaign to be the GOP nominee for the 2012 election – actually did go away, at least for one night, during Tuesday’s Republican debate in New Hampshire.

The word “immigration” never came up – not by the moderator, PBS’s Charlie Rose. Not by the reporters. Not by the candidates themselves, either in their answers to questions, or when they got a chance to ask one of their rivals a question on anything they wanted.

Immigration, which has dogged Perry and been relentlessly raised by his main rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was conspicuously absent in a debate that focused almost exclusively on the economy.

That was a far cry from previous debates, when the topic nearly stole the show – and clearly stole thunder from Perry’s momentum as the front-runner as rivals hammered away at him for his support of a Texas law allowing undocumented immigrants to attend college at the same lower tuition rate as other state residents.

“100 minutes of debate,” tweeted @rramirez44 shortly after it concluded at 10 p.m.  “and GOP candidates haven't mentioned how they'd fix broken immigration system, which hurts economy.”

A Washington Post writer praised the civility and focus of the debate, which was sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, but bemoaned the glaring omission of immigration and expressed hope that future debates would bring back discussions on the topic and other social issues.

“The [debate] limited itself to a single theme,” wrote blogger Erik Wimple in the Washington Post. “Not a single discussion in Tuesday night’s two-hour discussion veered from the economy, business and taxation. . .Expect future coverage of economic issues to footnote this particular session, all the way to November 2012.”

“So that’s great,” he said. “But I want my social issues back. I want more fighting on immigration and fences and in-state tuition.”

Published reports in the last week said that Perry made an effort to prepare better for this debate, held at Dartmouth College, and that included practicing answers to what he expected would be another round of attacks – specifically by Romney – on his positions on immigration.

Romney has worked doggedly to portray Perry as soft on illegal immigration. He recently began airing an online campaign ad portraying Perry as a weakling on immigration by using video of  former Mexican President Vicente Fox thanking Perry for the in-state tuition law in Texas.

Romney also took Perry’s comment in a debate about how people who oppose in-state tuition for the undocumented don’t have a heart and turned it against him, saying that they do have a heart and a brain.

Perry sought to do damage-control later by saying he’d been wrong to characterize opponents of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants as heartless.

Perry has pushed back by raising instances where he’s been tough. While traveling in Iowa, where his support of in-state tuition unsettles many voters, according to polls, Perry spoke about how he vetoed bills granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

He’s also tried to frame in-state tuition laws as good for the economy.

“We wanted to make taxpayers, not tax wasters,” Mr. Perry has said. “The issue was really driven by economics.”

The absence of the topic that has been among the most dominant in the fight to be the GOP presidential nominee seems to have been fueled in large part by Romney’s apparent effort to take the focus off Perry on Tuesday now that he has become the front-runner.

Romney, as well as other GOP rivals, devoted much less attention to Perry in general. The GOP rivals focused much of their attention on Romney, who earlier in the day got an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. After Romney, most of the attention was directed at Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, and his 9-9-9 Plan, which calls for a nine percent tax on personal income, business income and sales.

Romney’s determination to practically ignore Perry in this debate was most obvious when, given the chance to ask his own question of any of the candidates, he directed his at Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Romney, who pundits have said emerged the “winner” of the debate, calmly and confidently swatting pointed questions about his controversial healthcare reform law while he was governor, has come under fire himself from supporters of tough immigration laws.

Polls show opposition from voters of different political parties to his support for increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers.

Romney has argued that his support for more visas, which is part of his economic plan, would not displace U.S. workers but rather fill a labor void.

Cain drew the ire of immigration advocates when he proposed securing the U.S.-Mexican border with "a twenty foot wall, barbed wire, electrified on the top, and on this side of the fence, I'll have that moat that President Obama talked about. And I would put those alligators in that moat!"

Will immigration bounce back as a dominant issue in the fight for the GOP nomination?

Anything can happen, especially if Perry can regain popularity and is again viewed as more of a threat to Romney or Cain.

Even as the economy arguably remains the top priority for voters regardless of race and ethnicity, many on different sides of the immigration debate say immigration is inextricably linked to the U.S. economy.

“Don’t take immigration off the table,” writes Washington Post columnist Colbert King. “The issue, this time around, isn’t Perry’s in-state tuition plan for children of illegal immigrants in Texas. Alabama’s draconian immigration scheme ought to be the chief focus."

"The Obama administration opposes it and will challenge the plan in court," King said. "If president, would any of the eight hopefuls also take on that fight?"

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino

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