He was the heavy favorite going into Saturday's mock election run by the Republican Party of Florida until he made a number of missteps in Thursday's debate, including his wobbly defense of his immigration record.
"He ran Texas very well, but I'm worried why he allowed the illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition,'' said Doris Madry, a 78-year-old retired educator from Boca Raton who attended the debate. "I mean, if my daughter went to school there, she'd have to pay out-of-state tuition."
Perry ended up in a disappointing second place in the Florida straw poll, lagging far behind underdog Herman Cain in a pivotal primary state.
About one dozen states offer some form of tuition assistance to the children of illegal immigrants. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, was the co-sponsor of such a bill in 2003 and 2004, before he became speaker of the Florida state House. Bush, whose wife was born and raised in Mexico and who speaks fluent Spanish, also championed the legislation.
"Someone who's been living here for almost all their lives, going through their education here and doing exactly what we ask them to do, there should not be a barrier to their entry to college," Bush said in 2006.
In the e-mail Tuesday to National Journal, Bush softened his support slightly for the issue by suggesting that the tuition breaks are harder to justify in a ragged economy.
"In times of cutbacks, it would not be as high a priority as it would be in times of abundance," he said. In the email, he also insisted he would have required "many years" residency in state for students to be eligible for the tuition breaks. The Texas law, as well the Florida proposals, had a three-year residency requirement.
The distinctions Bush made recall the delicate balancing act performed by Rubio in his 2010 campaign. Running as the conservative antidote to the more moderate Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio was forced to explain why a half-dozen bills cracking down on illegal immigration collapsed under his leadership of the House.
Without renouncing his support for the tuition breaks, Rubio said during the campaign that he had other priorities as House speaker and that he believed immigration--particularly protecting the border--is a federal responsibility.
"As he said throughout the 2010 campaign and continues to say today, he believes that a consensus exists to help a limited number of young people who were brought here by their parents as young children and have worked hard, exhibited good moral character, and want to contribute to our nation's future in a meaningful way by becoming part of American society and attending college or joining our armed forces," said Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos.
Burgos added that Rubio opposes the federal DREAM Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military to earn legal status. Perry also opposes that legislation.
Image credit: John Raoux/AP