Perry campaign still strong amid fumbles

It’s a safe bet that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is still tea partiers’ top pick for the Republican presidential nomination. But he took a pounding during Monday night’s CNN/tea party debate in Tampa, Fla., backed down on a couple of issues, and was actually booed when talk turned to immigration.

That was significant. Tea party activists filled the auditorium and asked questions during the debate. If they’re occasionally frustrated with the front-runner, it’s clear they’re not sold on him.

Gov. Perry’s first switch was on Social Security, which he has labeled “a monstrous lie” that Washington perhaps should hand off to the states. On Monday he changed his tune. He tried to assure retirees and those nearing retirement that “slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there for them. … We’re not gonna take that program away.”

Later, he admitted he shouldn’t have signed an executive order requiring 12-year-old girls in Texas to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer: “I made a mistake by not going to the Legislature first.” As fellow candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum kept hammering on the issue, he looked rattled.

But it was illegal immigration that most upset the tea partiers.

Gov. Perry defended his decision to grant in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants. “It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is,” he said. “That is the American way. I’m proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, ‘You go be on the government dole.’ ”

Scattered boos erupted.

The audience was no happier to hear that he opposes a fence running the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border. He said it isn’t feasible. The other candidates, who hail from states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts, thought it was a grand idea.

We’ll defer to Gov. Perry on these topics. He cast Texas’ immigration decisions as matters of states’ rights, meaning Texas is closer to the problem and knows better how to handle it. He is correct. The border fence is a boondoggle anyway.

Through most of Monday’s debate, Mitt Romney remained Gov. Perry’s most determined rival. In future forums we’ll see who stumbles and who stays.