ORLANDO, Fla. — Fighting to seize back the lead in the Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney slammed Rick Perry in a spirited debate Thursday for giving the children of illegal immigrants a break on Texas tuition that American citizens outside the state can't get.
Romney also hit Perry anew over his past criticisms of Social Security, while other rivals jumped on the Texas governor for opposing a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as his order that young women be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease.
The barrage on immigration underscored what rivals think could be the first chink in Perry's armor since he jumped into the race and surged into the lead. Unlike attacks on him over Social Security — which Perry says look like they come from a Democrat — the criticisms on immigration come from the right and threaten to make him look too liberal, a weakness in the conservative-dominated party.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said the child of an illegal immigrant getting in-state college tuition in Texas gets a discount of $100,000 over four years, a break not available to citizens of any of the other 49 states going to college in Texas.
"That doesn't make sense to me," Romney said. "And that kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break."
Perry did not flinch, calling it the humane thing to do.
"If you say we should not educate children who come into our state by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said. "We need to educate these children or they will be a drag on society."
Perry was also blasted by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who called him "soft" on immigration.
Santorum reacted angrily to Perry's charge that anyone who denies a tuition break to those students is heartless.
"Gov. Perry, no one is suggesting up here that the students that are illegal in this country shouldn't be able to go to a college," Santorum said. "... The point is, why are we subsidizing?"
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., brushed aside a question about her remark after a debate last week quoting a woman saying that the human papillomavirus vaccine causes mental retardation. But she renewed her criticism of Perry for signing an executive order that ordered young women get the HPV vaccine out of fear they would get cervical cancer.
Perry responded with a story of how he was lobbied by a woman who had cervical cancer.
Romney also hit Perry anew in their bitter battle over Social Security.
Debating in a state where one-third of Republican primary voters in 2008 were over 65, Perry said that state employees and retirees could have the option of foregoing Social Security and using state employee retirement plans.
No, said Romney, Perry wants more changes than that. He said that Perry has said that the program is unconstitutional and that the federal government should not be in the pension business.
"You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that," Romney said.
Perry tried to turn the discussion to health care. As governor, Romney approved near-universal health care for Massachusetts residents, a law widely regarded as the model for the 2010 federal health care law that Republicans despise.
"I believe in what I did," Romney insisted. He has said that each state should decide what kind of health plan fits it best.
The nine candidates took turns offering remedies for the nation's ailing economy.
Perry was asked for details on how he'd jolt the economy. He said those details were forthcoming, but for now, he pointed to Texas' economy.
That economy, he said, got a boost from low taxes and a regulatory climate friendly to business.
"If it will work in the state of Texas, it will work in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson had the line of the debate when he said, "My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs" than Barack Obama.
Romney earlier this month offered a 160-page plan for repairing the economy. Among its proposals: No taxes on dividends, capital gains or interest for people earning less than $200,000.
"The people who have been hurt most by the president's economy, the Obama economy, is the middle class. That's why I cut taxes for the middle class," he said.
Romney was asked to define rich. "I don't try and define who's rich and whos' not rich. I want everybody in America to be rich," he said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul drew cheers when asked about returning power to the states.
He called that a "crucial" subject, adding, "We have no controls of spending, taxes, regulation, no control in the Federal Reserve printing money. So if we want government, whether it is medical care or whatever, it is proper to do it at the local level as well as our schools."
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