TAMPA — Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry had the tea party crowd on his side at Monday night's debate, only to get booed when he espoused moderate-sounding positions on immigration.
Now the Texas governor is a target of some immigration hard-liners for voicing opposition to a border fence and defending a bill he signed that could help some illegal immigrants receive in-state tuition.
"If you're working toward your college degree, and if you are working and pursuing citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there," Perry explained at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
"And the bottom line is, it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way."
Cue the boos.
Hours later, the press releases and e-mails started.
"Perry was the first GOP candidate that the crowd booed tonight, and they started to boo as he rationalized his support for in-state tuition for illegal aliens," William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Public Action Committee said in a written statement.
"We are about to see what we will call the 'Perry Plunge' in the polls," Gheen said, citing a survey from Rasmussen Reports that showed 81 percent of Americans oppose tuition subsidies for illegal immigrants.
Other than his immigration position, Perry has racked up the accolades of social conservatives and tea party Republicans, winning plaudits for calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" that needs to be reformed.
The crowd applauded him in an exchange with Mitt Romney when he accused the former Massachusetts governor of trying to scare seniors.
But Perry also drew fire for supporting a bill that sought to vaccinate girls against human papillomavirus, also called HPV.
"It was kind of a tough night to be the front-runner," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican who met with Perry on Tuesday in Tampa.
Putnam said the immigration flap doesn't help Perry, but people are more concerned with taxes, job-creating policies and fighting President Barack Obama.
"I think it's not a lethal blow in a Republican primary," said Putnam, who has strong ties to Florida farmers, a lobby that opposed immigration measures in the Florida Legislature last year.
"Jeb Bush is highly thought of in conservative circles, and he has been very clear on a 'smart' immigration policy," Putnam noted of the former governor, who has expressed concerns that the tenor of the immigration debate could drive some Hispanics away from the GOP.
If Perry survives the Republican primary, his immigration stance could be a general-election boon. Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing segments of the state and nation's electorate, increasing 28 percent over the past four years in Florida.
Obama is actively courting the Hispanic vote, and his surrogates have suggested Republicans are anti-Hispanic for opposing the so-called "Dream Act," which conservatives say is tantamount to amnesty legislation. The contentious measure allows undocumented children to become legal residents if they are accepted to college or join the military.
The tuition bill that Perry signed was nicknamed the "Texas Dream Act" by a Houston Democrat, but Perry says the measure "is about education. It's not about immigration."
As governor, Perry also opposed a key element of an Arizona-style immigration crackdown that required state and local police to check the immigration status of suspects.
"I didn't think it was right for the Arizona-type law in one particular place, and that was forcing our police officers to become immigration officers," Perry said Tuesday. "I think that's the federal government's responsibility."
Perry said he wanted to do away with so-called "sanctuary cities" that make life easier for illegal immigrants, but the measure failed in the Texas Legislature. Perry said those immigration issues are state's rights issues, and what may work in Arizona may not be right for Texas or Florida.
An Arizona-style law consistently polls well among every demographic group — except Hispanics.
One of Perry's opponents, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, took a shot at Perry by suggesting he was guilty of treason for opposing a border fence.
Perry said a fence along the 1,200 miles of Texas-Mexico border wouldn't work and was too expensive. He favors a heightened law enforcement and military presence instead. His campaign estimates Texas has spent about $400 million over the past decade securing the border.
"I don't think there's anybody on that stage that has had practical experience or done more to secure the border than I have," Perry said.