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Has the Tea Party Set a Trap for Rick Perry in South Carolina?

At first glance, Labor Day weekend looks like it could be a lot of fun for Rick Perry and his fans. The odds of a Sarah Palin candidacy continue to shrink to irrelevance as she wrestles with incompetent local Tea Party organizers in Iowa over a long-planned appearance just outside Des Moines. Mitt Romney’s temporary triumph in securing top billing at a Tea Party Express event in New Hampshire, meanwhile, is being spoiled by protests from Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks organization. And Mitt is also looking a bit humiliated by his last-minute decision to change plans and appear at a candidate inquisition in South Carolina organized by Jim DeMint. But Team Perry would be well advised to stay very alert this weekend. The same South Carolina event that is being widely billed as a spectacle of Mitt Romney bending his knee to kiss the ring of Jim DeMint could produce a nasty ambush for Perry on the subject of his immigration record. 

It’s well known that Perry’s record and positions on immigration represent the one glaring area where he’s significantly out of step with conservative orthodoxy. He has, after all, consistently supported a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, both positions contemptuously dismissed as code for “amnesty” by many conservative activists. Worse yet, from their point of view, he signed and still defends a state version of the DREAM Act, which provides in-state tuition rates at state universities for illegal immigrants brought to this country as children. He opposes any modification of birthright citizenship. And he kept Texas off the bandwagon of states emulating Arizona’s SB 1070 law. Yes, he’s thundered a bit lately at the feds for their alleged failures in border enforcement. But by any measure, this is his Achilles heel when it comes to conservative ideological litmus tests, even if it is also a potential ace-in-the-hole in a general election, where the ability to avoid a calamitous loss among Hispanic voters could be the key to a GOP victory. Indeed, anti-immigrant demagogue Tom Tancredo published an op-ed on the eve of Perry’s announcement of his candidacy denouncing the governor’s record in terms normally reserved for Barack Obama.   

So it’s well worth noting that the co-inquisitor who will be sitting next to Jim DeMint (along with right-wing Princeton professor Robert George) at the Palmetto Freedom Forum event on Labor Day will be none other than Tancredo’s successor as Congress’ preeminent anti-immigration agitator, Representative Steve King of Iowa. King, whose views on the subject are so extreme that he was denied the chairmanship of a House subcommittee on immigration despite being its senior member, can hardly be expected to pass up an opportunity to bash Perry’s record in the forum’s one-on-one questioning format. And he may have an additional motive to highlight Perry’s heresies: His closest friend in Congress, now that Tancredo is gone, is Michele Bachmann. In fact, King has not made an endorsement in the presidential race up until now because he wanted to be able to participate in this weekend’s event. 

If Rick Perry does walk into a beatdown by King in Columbia, and doesn’t handle it well, the political consequences could be pretty serious. South Carolina is not a state where Republicans are particularly enamored of undocumented workers or sensitive about the Hispanic vote. If the extremely powerful Jim DeMint is looking for an excuse to support someone else or simply withhold his imprimatur, watching Perry squirm while his buddy King taunts him with a hot poker could provide an excellent excuse. And even more obviously, King is a major powerbroker back home in Iowa, and is likely capable of stopping Perry’s recent momentum in the state.

In other words, it’s not so clear Rick Perry is going to have an enjoyable Labor Day weekend. It could turn out to involve a barbecue where the Texan is himself on the grill.  

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.