By Dick Morris on September 23, 2011

From the start of his candidacy, we worried that the illegal immigration issue would prove to be his undoing and now Texas Governor Rick Perry has stumbled badly over the issue. In the Fox News/Google debate yesterday, his opposition to a border fence and support for instate tuition for illegal immigrants grated with conservative voters and, likely, handed the lead in the Republican nominating process back over to former Governor Mitt Romney.

In the process, Perry’s fall may drive enough votes to Michele Bachmann — in concert with voters who might otherwise vote for Sarah Palin — to put her back into the top tier in the race. It also will open the doors to more candidates to rise in the pack. Voters are still frustrated with Romney because of his support of Romneycare in Massachusetts and his flip flops on abortion and other issues. If the race evolves into Romney vs. the field, alternatives are bound to surface.

How far will Perry drop? He has a regional southern base and that will hold him up. But, once you fall from front runner heights, it is very difficult to come back. Such are the perils of a premature front runner.

Why is immigration so fundamental with GOP primary voters?

It is the Freudian blank page on which each voter projects his or her particular concerns. For those who are worried about jobs, illegals compete for employment opportunities. For partisan Republicans, illegals might turn into Democratic voters through amnesty. For those focusing on education, they crowd the schools. Transportation? They clog the roads. Health care? They are on line ahead of you at the clinic.

Perry’s opposition to a fence is hard to understand. How can “boots on the ground” keep out illegals without the electronic surveillance a fence makes possible? With 1200 miles of border, stationing a soldier even at close intervals would consume a massive amount of manpower. A fence, with electronic sensors, offers an opportunity to delay the illegal entrants until the boots can get to the scene.

For his part, Romney was presidential, dignified, humorous, and likeable in the debate. But he was also forceful, good at scoring points and landing punches without surrendering his perch of dignity. It was the kind of performance we will need from a candidate in the fall of next year.

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