Rick Perry is calling his Republican rivals “heartless” and using ethnically charged language to defend moderate parts of his immigration record. That strategy may endear the Texas governor to Hispanics and their allies even as it angers others the presidential candidate must woo to win the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.

Perry’s position could help him attract the support of Democratic-leaning Hispanics in key general election swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. Perry points to his appeal among Hispanics in private meetings with donors when they ask how the plain-spoken conservative is going to win the broad base of voters he’ll need to beat Obama in 2012. He wouldn’t need a majority of Hispanic voters to win — just enough to chip away at the overwhelming majority Obama won in 2008.

First, however, Perry must get through the Republican primary and convince an angry party base not to reject him outright for immigration positions many view as heresy. Even though the issue takes a backseat nationally to the struggling economy, immigration consistently pops up in early voting Iowa and South Carolina as voters press Republican candidates on whether they’re staunch enough against illegal immigration.

Even so, when it comes to federal immigration issues, Perry hasn’t shied away from parroting the standard conservative line.

He opposes the federal version of the tuition law, which Hispanic groups have pushed hard for and which also includes a path to citizenship for students. And during the debate, his staff emailed a news release to reporters that sounded a lot like all the other Republican candidates: “Gov. Perry opposes amnesty and the federal DREAM Act. Washington must first secure the border before we can have any rational discussion about immigration reform. Once that is accomplished, then we can have a conversation about how to address immigration.”

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