The conservative pundit Ann Coulter has called Gov. Rick Perry “a little bit too much like George Bush” on immigration — and she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. Tea Party loyalists have decried Perry’s opposition to a border fence and Arizona-style enforcement laws. And Mitt Romney has taken not-so-veiled jabs at Perry, criticizing officials who provide “incentives that promote illegal immigration.”

As Perry adjusts to his front-runner status for the Republican presidential nomination, his opponents are planting seeds of doubt about how tough the border state’s longest-serving governor has been on illegal immigration, from his compassion for immigrant students to the tightrope he has walked between securing the border and protecting the state’s symbiotic relationship with Mexico. Critics hope his track record —which some have generalized as tough on security, gentle on people — will be a complicating factor for the Republican faithful.

“You can’t even have an honest discussion about the economy without taking into consideration illegal immigration,” said Katrina Pierson, a member of the Dallas Tea Party’s steering committee. “Governor Perry has not met the standards, for me, to be the president of the United States if he can’t even address the real issues in Texas.”

The governor’s campaign counters that a serious discussion about immigration reform cannot take place until the border is secure. “The Obama administration has failed to do so, but as president, Governor Perry will deploy adequate resources, manpower and technology to get the job done,” said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry’s campaign.

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