AUSTIN -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking to preserve his lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, fought back against charges that he is soft on illegal immigration Thursday night in a nationally televised debate that also produced sharp exchanges between Perry and his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
After being hammered by his opponents in two previous debates, Perry took a more aggressive tact by engaging Romney on several issues, including healthcare and education. But he was quickly forced on the defensive when he came under a renewed attack for supporting a Texas law that permits in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into the 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 educate these children because they will become a drag on our society."
But Romney, who vetoed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants when he was governor of Massachusetts, said the Texas law draws illegal immigrants into the U.S. to seek a college education.
Perry fires back
"It's an argument I just can't follow," he said. "That kind of magnet draws people into this country."
The exchange perpetuated an issue that surfaced in the last debate when Perry first encountered criticism over the Texas law. Cracking down on illegal immigration is a top priority among Republican voters, prompting Romney and others to exploit what they sense as weakness in Perry's record.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also entered the exchange, saying that Perry is "soft on illegal immigration" and "very weak" on border protection.
Perry fired back, citing Texas' multi-agency law enforcement operation along the border and saying that no other candidate can match his experience in dealing with border security issues.
"We know how to make this work," Perry asserted. "We will make America secure."
Perry, who has held a double-digit lead since replacing Romney as the Republican front-runner, went into Thursday's debate with at least one poll suggesting that the GOP nomination race may be tightening. The latest Quinnipiac poll showed Perry with a 9-point advantage over Romney -- 31 percent to 22 percent.
Perry and Romney, who have consistently remained the top contenders in what increasingly looks like a two-way battle for the nomination. clashed repeatedly throughout the two-hour debate in Orlando, Fla., prompting former Gov. John Huntsman of Utah to observe that the two rivals "are going to bludgeon each other to death."
Social Security, which has become one of the most contentious issues between the two candidates, resurfaced again Thursday as Romney and Perry accused each other of inconsistent positions on the public retirement system.
Perry, who earlier came under attack from Romney for describing Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," sought to reassure older Americans that he would not dismantle their benefits, but he said that private options for state employees and retirees are worth exploring if they "make sense."
"We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country [who are on Social Security or approaching it] that ... Social Security will be there for them," Perry said.
"There's a Rick Perry out there saying ... the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional," Romney said. "You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
HPV issue resurfaces
Perry elaborated on his 2007 order requiring Texas girls to be immunized for the human papillomavirus, another issue left over from a previous debate. "I got lobbied by a 31-year-old" woman who had cervical cancer, Perry said. "The fact is, I erred on the side of life, and I will always err on the side of life."
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson made his first debate appearance since May, and got off perhaps the best line of the night when he said his neighbor's two dogs "have created more shovel-ready jobs" than President Barack Obama.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, running third in many polls, repeatedly emphasized his desire to get the federal government out of local public schools across America, saying local people should be running them.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294
Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610