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But then his opponents started scrutinizing his record on illegal immigration -- and a seemingly innocuous bill Perry had signed a decade before. That measure, a federal version of which supporters dubbed the DREAM Act, allowed undocumented immigrants who came to Texas as children to pay in-state tuition to attend college.
"The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws and are here in the United States illegally," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said at a Sept. 12, 2011, debate in Tampa, Fla. "Of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegally," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney chimed in.
A week and a half later, at another Republican debate, this one in Orlando, Perry fought back: "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said.
It was the beginning of the end for Perry's campaign. The Texas governor led one more poll -- a CNN/Opinion Research survey conducted Sept. 23-25 -- and then began an epic downward spiral. By the time he forgot the name of the third federal Cabinet department he would eliminate, at a debate Nov. 9 ("Oops"), national polls showed him languishing in the single digits.
Perry's collapse demonstrated the potency of illegal immigration within the Republican Party. Even with the House Republican leadership and such conservative favorites as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on board, immigration hard-liners in the House have succeeded in blocking a bipartisan Senate immigration bill. (Notably, two other Republican senators contemplating presidential campaigns, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, voted against the Senate bill.)
Although Republican candidates can survive other breaks from party orthodoxy -- whether it's Sen. John McCain of Arizona on campaign finance reform or Romney on health care with an individual mandate -- immigration remains a third rail.
Perry's downfall, as well as the likely death of immigration legislation in Congress, makes Republican Gov. Chris Christie's decision to sign a New Jersey bill similar to the Texas legislation all the more interesting.
Far from running from the issue, Christie is embracing the new law, and the changes he inspired. Although he signed it in private Friday, Christie will hold a public signing ceremony at a later date, his press office said.
The measure's success was no sure thing. Until Thursday, Christie maintained that he would veto the legislation without important alterations.
Christie issued a conditional veto of the state legislature's version of the bill, removing a section that would have made students eligible for state-funded financial aid programs such as tuition grants; the legislature quickly voted again to pass Christie's version.
"This is what compromise looks like. Sometimes it's quiet. Sometimes it's loud," Christie said Thursday, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
During his re-election campaign this year, Christie said he supported allowing in-state tuition for so-called DREAMers, the children of undocumented immigrants who graduated from New Jersey high schools. And with Republicans desperate to do better among Hispanic voters, Christie stands out: He received 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls conducted on Election Day, compared with 45 percent for his Democratic opponent.
Public polling suggests that even Republican voters are taking a more conciliatory view of undocumented immigrants since Perry's run for office. In a November survey conducted by Quinnipiac University, 44 percent of Republican voters polled said illegal immigrants living in the United States should be allowed to stay and to eventually apply for citizenship. An additional 15 percent said those immigrants should be allowed to stay but without applying for citizenship. Just 38 percent of Republican respondents said those immigrants should be required to leave the U.S.
Still, should Christie decide to run for president in 2016, his rivals are likely to make a point of bringing up the legislation he signed Friday.
He has to hope that the polling is accurate, that his party's primary electorate isn't dominated by immigration hard-liners or that Rubio -- the only other potential 2016 candidate to stick his neck out on such a hot-button issue -- takes most of the incoming fire.
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