CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry renewed his attack on Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney as untrustworthy, and defended Texas illegal immigration policy that has been criticized by conservative Republicans.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Perry accused the former Massachusetts governor of changing positions on gun control, the causes of global warming and government health insurance mandates.
He is seeking to chip away at Romney’s big lead in the polls in a key early primary state, and arrest his own slide in national surveys.
“Like it or not the governor has been on the opposite side of a lot of issues,” Perry said during a live interview with conservative activist and New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne. “The issue is who are you really going to trust to stand up and be consistent?”
The Romney and Perry camps have focused their criticism on each other on Friday rather than businessman Herman Cain who now leads in some national Republican polls, an indication that neither campaign views Cain as a serious threat.
Also piling on Romney on Friday was former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who is preparing to make a four-day campaign swing through New Hampshire.
“Real leadership is taking a clear position on issues even if it comes at political risk. Backflipping is for toys and gymnasts, not presidents,” the Huntsman campaign said in a new web video.
Perry, who briefly led in national polls after entering the Republican race in August, has faded after a string of shaky performances in candidate debates.
In Concord on Friday he sought deflect criticism from Romney and Tea Party conservative activists who accuse him of being soft on illegal immigration.
Perry signed a bill that allowed Texas residents without legal U.S. resident status to attend Texas colleges, while paying in-state tuition. The bill passed the Texas legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“We could kick these people to the side of the road and then we’ll have to pick up the costs of whatever those social programs they’re going to be eligible for,” he said. “We’re going to either have tax wasters or tax payers.”
Perry’s campaign also chided Romney for allowing people without proof of citizenship to access health care programs for the poor while governor of Massachusetts, an indication of how strongly the illegal immigration issue is resonating with Republican primary voters.
Romney campaign spokesman Andrea Saul termed Perry “desperate” in an emailed response.
He “will try anything to deflect attention away from his liberal policy on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and his advocacy for turning Social Security over to the states,” Saul said.
At a town hall meeting in Manchester on Friday evening, Romney focused on President Barack Obama rather than Perry, saying Obama as trying to “divide America into haves and have nots” and invite a “very dangerous” brand of class divisions.
The Texas governor, who has indicated he may skip some of the remaining Republican debates, joked about his debating shortfalls and sought to minimize the importance of debate performances.
“Shoot, I may be a great debater before it’s all over,” he said. “We have a very very good debater and a slick politician in the White House right now, and it’s not working.”
Reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by Ros Krasny and Greg McCune