Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in the cross hairs of every candidate in Thursday night's Republican presidential debate, defended his record on jobs, Social Security and immigration – even calling opponents of DREAM children heartless.
“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 said. “We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.”
The debate, sponsored by Fox News and Google, gave the nine presidential hopefuls a chance to convince the nation why voters should choose them to represent the GOP against President Barack Obama next year as candidates scramble to get in the good graces of Latinos come general election time.
The candidates' focus seemed to be on Perry. The perceived frontrunner has faced criticism from his rivals on immigration since entering the race in August.
Perry has stood firm on his immigration policies, which include tough enforcement on the border but support for educating children of undocumented immigrants.
He said Thursday that Texas has spent millions to secure its border with Mexico, for example, and he supported Arizona's tough immigration law.
“For a decade, I've been the governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. We put $400 million of our taxpayer money into securing that border," he said. "We've got our Texas Ranger re-con teams there now. Every day I have Texans on that border that are doing their job.”
Perry also remained adamant that so-called DREAM students should have options for education. In Texas, universities grant such students the same in-state tuition rates as other residents.
That stance drew outrage from his competitors.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, for instance, said giving "illegal aliens" a tuition discount is a magnet that "draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break."
"It makes no sense," he said. “It's an argument I just can't follow. I've got be honest with you, I don't see how it is that a state like Texas – to go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount.
"You know how much that is?" he continued. "That's $22,000 a year.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, too, accused Perry of being soft on immigration, asking why undocumented immigrants should be given preferential treatment.
“Governor Perry, no one is suggesting up here that the students that are illegal in this country shouldn't be able to go to a college and university. I think you are sort of making this leap that, unless we subsidize this, the taxpayers subsidize it, they won't be able to go,” Santorum said.
“And why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country?" he said. "That's what we're saying. The point is, why are we subsidizing?”
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in on the immigration matter as well. Both candidates reinforced their support for 100 percent control of the border, and English as the official language of government.
“I would build a fence on America's southern border on every mile, on every yard, on every foot, on every inch of the southern border,” Bachmann said.“I think that's what we have to do, not only build it, but then also have sufficient border security and enforce the laws that are on the books with the ICE agents, with our border security.”
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
The debate touched on the struggling economy, too, and the candidates laid out why voters should trust them to bring it back to life. That's when the candidates zeroed in on President Obama.
"My view is very simple: The people that have been hurt most by the president's economy, the Obama economy, has been the middle class," Romney said. "That's why I cut taxes for the middle class."
Bachmann seemed to go one further, saying any form of taxes takes a hit on the American worker.
"You should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That's your money; that's not the government's money," Bachmann said.
"That's the whole point," she continued. "Barack Obama seems to think that when we earn money, it belongs to him and we're lucky just to keep a little bit of it. I don't think that at all. I think when people make money, it's their money."
Perry, meanwhile, said he was a proven leader – and the right man to kickstart the economy – because of his job creation record in Texas.
"We sit with Congress and we lower those corporate tax rates, we lower those personal tax rates, and then we put our plan to make America energy independent," he proposed. "And that is the way you get America working again."
Romney and Perry Go Head-to-Head
On Social Security, Perry defended his idea that state employees and state retirees should have the option to get off the current federal social security program and enter a state option.
“The bottom line is, we never said that we were going to move this back to the states,” Perry said. “For those people that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about.”
Romney shot back by pointing out an apparent contradiction in Perry's stance.
“Well, it's different than what the governor put in his book just, what, six months, and what you said in your interviews following the book. So I don't know,” he said. “There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying – and almost to quote – that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional.”
Perry jabbed back by attacking the former Massachusetts governor’s state healthcare plan, dubbed by some as “Romneycare” for its similarities to President Obama’s healthcare plan.
“As a matter of fact, between books, your hard copy book, you said it was exactly what the American people needed, to have that Romneycare given to them as you had in Massachusetts. Then in your paperback, you took that line out. So, speaking of not getting it straight in your book, sir,” Perry said.
Romney said he believed his plan worked for the state but would not be a viable national plan.
“I stand by what I wrote," he said to Perry. "I believe in what I did.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.