AUSTIN -- Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has come out in opposition to a 2001 law that Gov. Rick Perry supported to allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, further compounding what has become one of the most troublesome issues in Perry's race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Dewhurst, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, said in a television interview over the weekend that he would have rejected the bill that Perry signed into law a decade ago. But in a later interview, Dewhurst reaffirmed his support for Perry's presidential bid and described him as "the best person in the race" to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.
Perry's support of the measure has caused concern among Tea Party activists and other conservative voters who are demanding tough measures against illegal immigration. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and several other rivals have cited the law in an attempt to portray Perry as being weak on illegal immigration.
Perry, hoping to rebound from a poor debate performance last week, sought to reassure voters about his positions on immigration and other issues in two "tele-town halls" Monday night with grassroots activists in Iowa and South Carolina.
"He was reaching out to voters to try to calm fears among his Iowa supporters on those issues," said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, an online conservative newspaper. Robinson, who participated in the conference call, said the in-state-tuition law could "haunt Perry" among conservative Iowa Republicans.
Perry also discussed his positions on Social Security and his 2007 order requiring schoolgirls to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, teleconference participants said.
Katon Dawson, Perry's campaign chairman in South Carolina, told CNN that Perry did not retreat from his stands in the debates but sought to explain his reasoning on the positions.
Perry has repeatedly said that the in-state-tuition law enabled thousands of children to get a college education who would otherwise be barred by steep tuition. He has also portrayed himself as the toughest of any candidate in the race on border enforcement.
"This was a measure that was supported by the entire Legislature at the time, minus four dissenting votes," Perry's campaign spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said. "It was about education."
Perry, who soared into the lead after entering the race in mid-August, is trying to get back on track after last week's debate and a subsequent second-place showing to Atlanta businessman Herman Cain in Florida's straw poll, an event that Perry was widely expected to win. Perry's supporters have described the setbacks as bumps in the road that can be expected in any campaign.
A CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed that Perry is still the front-runner among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, with 28 percent compared with 21 percent for Romney. But an IBOPE Zogby poll showed Perry plummeting to 18 percent and placed Cain in the lead with 28 percent. Romney had 17 percent in the Zogby poll.
Dewhurst's announced opposition to the in-state-tuition bill caused a buzz in Austin and was interpreted by some analysts as an attempt to shore up conservative support in his U.S. Senate bid. Dewhurst, the state Senate's presiding officer, took office in 2003; the law took effect in 2001.
In an interview with Dallas' WFAA/Channel 8, Dewhurst said the bill was a matter of fairness.
"If we're not going to give fellow Americans who live in Louisiana or Oklahoma or New Mexico the ability to come to Texas and have in-state tuition and save, then is it fair to give that break to people who are not citizens here?" Dewhurst said. "So I would not have signed that law."
Dewhurst later told Lubbock's First News With Chad Hasty, "I'm a big supporter of Gov. Rick Perry, I'm supporting him for president, and I think he is the best person in the race to beat President Obama in November of 2012."
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294