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Perry's Immigration Problem

There's an interesting (if rather premature) debate unfolding in the chattering classes about Rick Perry's phenomenal surge in the polls. Is he, thanks to the buzz about him and his very fortunate positioning in a limited Republican field, close to becoming a lead-pipe cinch for the nomination unless he says something really self-destructive in the near future?

John Ellis thinks so, and Jonathan Chait is inclined to agree. Neither of them really get into the vulnerabilities Perry has already shown. I'd say his nasty comments about Social Security in his recent book Fed Up! present a potentially very serious problem, but probably more in the general election than in the primaries. If he can stick to the line that all he was really talking about in the book was the need to "protect" Social Security's solvency via partial privatization, he can likely dodge that bullet for a good while. It's not as though Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann is going to dwell on it.

But hardly anyone is bringing up his position on an issue that could actually help him in the general election, but could be a real deal-breaker for some conservative voters during the nominating process: immigration. As you may have heard, Perry's history on immigration is pretty much the same as that of his predecessor, George W. Bush (or any other Texas Republican who wants to win general elections in that state). He favors a "guest worker" program and a "path to citizenship" for the undocumented. He signed into law and still defends a state version of the DREAM Act. He refused to support a Texas version of Arizona's "crackdown" law.

These credentials could all help Perry improve on what may otherwise be a dreadful and potentially fatal GOP performance among Hispanic voters in November of 2012. But they certainly are outside the current national conservative mainstream on immigration policy. He's done some recent growling and demagoguing on illegal immigration, and is considered relatively tough on border enforcement. But his basic, longtime stance will be impossible to shed without an egregious flip-flop.

And that could be a problem for him beginning in his first real challenge, the Iowa Caucuses.

Iowa's a fertile ground for immigrant-bashing because it has just enough of a Hispanic presence to make immigrants generally visible, but not enough to represent (particularly among Republicans) a serious voting bloc. More importantly, one of the Big Dogs in Iowa GOP politics is Rep. Steve King, who, now that Tom Tancredo is no longer in Congress, is the A-number-one immigration firebrand in Washington. King is also very, very close to Michele Bachmann. He has promised not to make an endorsement until after the Labor Day weekend. But should he come out with guns blazing at Perry for being a wimp on immigration, it will definitely have an impact in a state that Perry has apparently decided to seriously contest.

And why is King holding off until after Labor Day? He's serving as a panelist (along with Jim DeMint and conservative professor Robert George) at a debate/inquisition being held in South Carolina that weekend in which all the major Republican candidates other than Mitt Romney will be tested for conservative ideological purity. If King has decided to torment Perry on Bachmann's behalf for his views on immigration, you couldn't imagine a better opportunity to launch the attack. Aside from its strategic position in the presidential nominating contest, South Carolina is another state where GOP politicians tend to be pretty uninhibited in attacks on immigration "amnesty" and related heresies.

Perry better be prepared.