Gov. Rick Perry participates in a Republican presidential debate Thursday in Orlando, Florida.

Story highlights

Rick Perry signed a bill to grant in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants

Texas was the first state to pass such a bill, in 2001

The issue has cost the Texas governor some Republican supporters

Perry finished second in Saturday's straw poll in Orlando

Orlando CNN  — 

Of all the punches thrown at Gov. Rick Perry during last week’s Republican presidential debate in Florida, few landed harder than questions about Perry’s support for a Texas bill allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

Perry signed the bill, HB 1403, in 2001 with the support of all but four legislators, making Texas the first state to grant in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the state for three years and are seeking permanent residency.

Perry’s forceful defense of the legislation – he said skeptics of the bill don’t “have a heart” – was the talk of conservative activists in Orlando this weekend for Presidency 5, the three-day Republican Party of Florida convention that hosted the debate.

The political damage became clear Saturday, when Perry finished a distant second to businessman Herman Cain in a presidential straw poll conducted at the gathering.

The disappointing finish came after the Perry campaign spent weeks courting convention delegates who voted in the straw poll, hoping for a show of strength in a primary state that could seal the GOP nomination early next year.

Instead, some Republicans turned their backs on the governor and looked elsewhere.

Vero Beach activist Dorothy Frances, one of the more than 3,000 diehard Republicans who attended the convention, came into the weekend supporting Perry.

That changed when Perry answered a question about the roughly 16,000 young illegal immigrants who took advantage of the Texas tuition law last year.

“He was my man until then,” Frances told CNN. “He defended it so strongly, about giving illegals breaks and things like that. He defended it so vehemently, so strongly. It disturbs me.”

Naples resident Randy Freeman said Perry “stumbled greatly” on the immigration issue and may have seriously damaged his reputation with the Republican base.

“I don’t think a lot of conservatives knew as much as they did now,” Freeman said. “That’s pretty much the vetting process. But I am not sure how he recovers from this.”

Then there was Newberry retiree Ann Stone, who entered the debate a Perry supporter but left looking for someone else.

“It’s absolutely an issue,” she said. “He lost me. $100,000 for an illegal immigrant? You bet he lost me.”

In one of the debate’s sharpest exchanges, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, said the law would give illegal immigrants “almost $100,000 discount” over four years if they attended the University of Texas.

Romney did not mention that the price tag might be markedly lower at lesser known state universities or community colleges.

But Perry defended the legislation in humanistic terms, sounding very much like supporters of the federal DREAM Act, a bill currently stalled in Congress that would offer a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors.

“If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.

Perry opposes the national DREAM Act and said the Texas bill was a state-specific solution that he still “supports greatly.”

Those remarks, coupled with his opposition to a fence along the 1,200-mile U.S. border with Mexico, created an opening for Perry’s Republican opponents.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has been attacking Perry on his right flank since he entered the race in August, pounced and accused the Texan of being “soft on illegal immigration.”

Asked Friday if he planned to keep hammering Perry on the issue, Santorum grinned and said: “What do you think?”

Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a veteran Republican power broker in Florida, said Perry’s word choice in the debate “kind of makes you scratch your head.”

“The most significant reason it turned people off was that he called people heartless,” Cardenas said. “It was a short answer but it had significant implications. If you seem soft on illegal immigration, that’s going to hurt you in this primary.”

Perry also faced questions about the Texas bill in a closed-door meeting in Broward County last week, according to John Hooper, a Fort Lauderdale developer and Perry supporter who attended the event.

“He gave the same answer he did in the debate,” Hooper said. “He said, ‘It’s not their fault that they were brought in here, and the point of the bill was that they are given an education so they become productive instead of being a drag on Texas society.”

Hooper liked Perry’s answer and said he worries that harsh GOP rhetoric on immigration may turn off Latino voters in the general election.

He said Perry’s message of “sympathy” would play well in 2012 should he win the nomination.

Several Perry supporters in Orlando expressed frustration that immigration has emerged as the governor’s Achilles heel, since Perry has more hands-on experience with border security issues than any candidate in the GOP field.

That was the message delivered Saturday by Michael Williams, a former Texas railroad commissioner and a popular conservative who spoke on Perry’s behalf before the straw poll balloting commenced.

“He has opposed amnesty,” Williams told the convention. “He has spent a decade and $400 million securing our border with state dollars because the federal government has failed.”

For good measure, he added: “No illegal immigrant in the state of Texas has received a handout for a free college education.”

But as the straw poll results revealed, Perry made an impression that might be difficult to erase.

Therese Everly, a health care worker from Collier County, cast her ballot for Perry but said chatter about his immigration record “spread like wildfire” through the hotel hallways and bars at Presidency 5.

“He was good on all the other issues,” Everly said. “But he came across as soft on immigration. I think he didn’t articulate it well. I was shocked about that.”