Rick Perry had lived up to his campaign motto: "Nobody is going to outflank me on the right."
But then last night, something funny happened. Perry outed himself as less-than-hardcore on immigration policy. While still insisting on a militarized border, the Texas governor defended his decision to make the children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition rates:
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our 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."
Of course, this commitment to spend public resources on undocumented students is far out of step with Tea Party orthodoxy. And calling those who disagree with him heartless? Them's fighting words.
Mitt Romney, who had been holding fast to the center since Perry's arrival, saw daylight to the right and he pounced. Romney denounced Perry's policy as a "$100,000 discount" for "illegal aliens" and a "magnet" that "draws people into this country."
As a matter of politics, Romney's hard-right tack on immigration might help him in the primary. But it's pure gold for Obama for the general election.
Perry is a hard-right ideologue. A stray note of moderation on immigration isn't going to unsettle the narrative he's established for himself by calling Social Security an unconstitutional "Ponzi scheme" and by proposing to repeal the direct-election of U.S. Senators. Centrist Obama v. Reactionary Perry is the kind of general-election matchup the president thinks he can win.
Romney poses a different kind of challenge. The same moderate policy choices that make his path to the nomination so difficult — think Romneycare — are likely to help the Republican attract independent votes in the general. But Romney's anti-immigrant push drops a nasty fly in electability ointment: How moderate can you be if you're capable of out-heartless-ing Rick Perry on ... anything?
Worse, by demonizing Latino immigrants in an attempt to secure a short-term advantage with the GOP base, Romney is repeating the same tactical error his party committed in the 2006 and 2008 elections — moves that sent millions of Hispanics into the streets and into the voting booth to pull the lever for Democrats.
With the president's poll numbers among Hispanics flagging, Romney is handing the president a gift by defining himself as the anti-DREAM-Act Republican.
And judging by the way Romney continued to flog the immigration issue today at CPAC, this is a gift to the Democrat that will keep on giving.