Image: Texas Governor Rick Perry talks with Rep. Ron Paul, during a commercial break at the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday.
Mario Anzuoni  /  Reuters
Texas Governor Rick Perry talks with Rep. Ron Paul, during a commercial break at the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 9/7/2011 10:47:54 PM ET 2011-09-08T02:47:54

A Texas-size rivalry boiled over in the Republican presidential contest Wednesday, with Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry strongly criticizing each other during a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a memorial to the conservative who counseled fellow Republicans not to speak ill about one another.

Neither Texan heeded that advice.

Paul said at the Simi Valley, Calif., event that Perry is "less conservative than meets the eye." Perry countered that Paul left the GOP a turncoat against Reagan's Republican Party.

Story: Perry takes the heat but keeps on smiling
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It was the most direct confrontation between the pair. In recent weeks, Paul called Perry "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader" for once working in support of the Democrat. Perry's team, in turn, released Paul's 1987 resignation from the GOP.

The back-and-forth between two Texans, who never have been particularly close, was an escalation several weeks in the making. Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has a strong legion of die-hard supporters and a big bank account, came within 152 votes of winning an important test vote in Iowa on the same day that Perry, who leads in several national and state polls, entered the race to great fanfare among the party's conservative base.

As both candidates have seen their standing in the GOP field rise, they have sharpened their criticism of each other.

"He wrote a really fancy letter about Hillarycare so we probably ought to ask him about that," Paul said, referencing a 1993 letter Perry wrote in support of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Video: Watch the entire GOP debate (on this page)

In that letter, Perry, then the state's agriculture commissioner, wrote: "I think your efforts in trying to reform the nation's health care system are most commendable."

On stage for his first presidential debate, Perry said he was worried about health care services for rural farmers.

"I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan that said, 'I'm going to quit the party,'" Perry told Paul..

In that letter, Paul wrote: "I want to totally disassociate myself from the policies that have given us unprecedented deficits, massive monetary inflation, indiscriminate military spending, an irrational and unconstitutional foreign policy, zooming foreign aid, the exaltation of international banking, and the attack on our personal liberties and privacy."

Vote: Who do you think won the GOP debate?

Last week, Paul likened Perry to a "candidate of the week" and predicted that Perry's poll numbers would fall quickly once voters got to know him better. He told The Associated Press, "Texas has had a lot of changes in these last eight years, not exactly positive either."

This week, Paul rolled out a TV ad suggesting that Perry wants to unravel the Reagan legacy. The ad highlighted Paul's own endorsement of Reagan's unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 1976 and Perry's work on Democrat Al Gore's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988.

Video: Perry opens GOP debate (on this page)

The ad said: "Rick Perry helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution, fighting to elect Al Gore president of the United States. Now, America must decide who to trust: Al Gore's Texas cheerleader or the one who stood with Reagan."

Perry was a Democrat serving in the state legislature at the time and had no significant leadership role in Gore's third-place finish in Texas. Perry switched parties in 1989 and successfully ran for state agriculture commissioner as a Republican.

"We don't think the fact that you used to be a Democrat is the big problem here," Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton said in an open letter to Perry on Wednesday. "The real problem is that, too often, you still act like one."

Story: Perry and Romney lock horns at GOP debate

In 2008, Perry, who previously supported Texans Phil Gramm and George W. Bush for president, backed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over Paul in the GOP nomination fight.

Asked at the time about Paul, Perry dismissed his home state lawmaker.

"I didn't ever consider Ron Paul," he said. "You get to make choices in life. And I made a choice. Ron Paul is not mine for president. It's pretty simple for me."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Watch the entire GOP debate

  1. Closed captioning of: Watch the entire GOP debate

    >> introducing another affiliate of ours, how are you doing?

    >> good evening, nice to see you all. nice to see you all. i want to talk about a subject dear to the heart of president reagan , he was the last u.s. president to sign immigration reform in 1986 . all of you, i think, have said you don't think immigration reform should be discussed until the border is secure, and governor, i'd like to ask you, border state governor, what specifically, in your mind, would make the border secure?

    >> well, the first thing you need to do is have boots on the ground . we've had a request in to this administration since january of 2009 for 1,000 border patrol agents, national guard troops, and working towards 3,000 border patrol . that's just on the texas border . there's another 50% more for the entire mexican border , so you can secure the border , but it requires a commitment of the federal government of putting those boots on the ground , aviation assets in the air, we think predator drones could be flown and realtime information coming down to the local, state, and federal law enforcement, and you can secure the border and at that particular point in time you can have an intellectually appropriate discussion about immigration reform . for the president of the united states to go to el paso , texas, and say the border is safer than it's ever been, either he has the poorest intel or he was a liar to the american people . it is not safe on that border .

    >> governor, specifically, do you agree or disagree with some of the issues the governor of texas says as far as what you would consider enough to be able to declare the border safe?

    >> well, first, we ought to have a fence.

    >> the whole fence, 2,600 miles?

    >> or a approved system to know who's coming into the country , number one. number two, we have to have enough agents to secure the fence, but the third thing, and i learned this when i was with border patrol agents in san diego . look, they can always get a ladder to go over the fence, the reason they come in such great numbers is because we've left the magnet on. what do you mean, the magnet? when employers are willing to hire people illegally, that's a magnet. sanctuary cities giving tuition breaks to illegal aliens , employers knowingly hire people who are here illegally. those things have to be stopped. we have to make sure we have a fence technologically showing where people are, and turn off that magnet. we can't talk about amnesty, we can't give amnesty to those who come here illegally. let those people come in first and those here illegally, they shouldn't have a special deal.

    >> speaker gingrich, your perception on immigration reform , you've been different on your initial positions.

    >> i think we have to find a way to get to a country in which everybody who's here is here legally, but you started by referencing president reagan . in 1986 , i voted for the simson mizoliac. president reagan wrote in his diary that year he signed the act because we were going to have an employer-program where it was an illegal guest worker program . that's in his diary. i'm with president reagan , we ought to control the border , have a legal guest worker program , outsource it to american express , visa, and mastercard so there's no counter counterfeiting. make english the official language of government, we should insist first generation immigrants that come here learn american history in order to become citizens, and also insist american citizens learn american history , and then find a way to deal with folks already here, some of whom are here 25 years, live in our neighborhood, go to church, it has to be done in a more humane way than automatically to deport millions of people.

    >> your solution?

    >> similar to newt gingrich 's. look, i'm the son of an italian immigrant. i think immigration is one of the great things that's made this country the dynamic country that it continues to be, people who are drawn because of the ideals of this country, and so we should not have a debate talking about how we don't want people to come to this country, but we want them to come here like my grandfather and my father came here, they made sacrifices, they came in the 1920s with no promises or government benefits. they came because they wanted to be free and good law-abiding citizens. we have to have a program in place that says you want to come to this country, come according to the rules, it's a very good first step that the first thing you do here is a legal act , not an illegal act.

    >> so there are 11 million people that are here, what do you do with them if you are able to secure the border ?

    >> well, i think we can have the discussion that whether what we do with people, how long they've been here, whether they have other types of records, but to have that discussion right now and pull the same trick that was pulled in 1986 , well, we promise to do this if you do that, no more. we are going to secure the border first, and that's the most important thing to do, then we'll have the discussion afterwards.

    >> congresswoman, you said the fence, you believe the fence is fundamental controlling the border , let's say in 2012 or 2013 , there's a fence, border is secure, gasoline is $2 a gallon, what do you do then with 11 million people, many of whom with u.s.-born children here, what do you do?

    >> understand the context and the problem we're dealing with. many mexico right now, we're dealing with terrorists. this is a very serious problem. to not build a border or a fence on every part of that border would be, in effect, to yield united states sovereignty, not only to our nation but to another nation. that we cannot do. one thing the american people have said to me over and over again. last week i was in miami with cuban americans , i met with a number of people, and it's very interesting, the hispanic-american community wants to stop giving benefits to illegal aliens and benefits to their children as well.

    >> a quick 30-second rebuttal on the specific question. the fence is built, border is under control, what do you do with 11.5 million here without documents or u.s.-born children?

    >> social security sequential and it depends where they live, how long they've been here, if they have a criminal record , all of those things have to be taken into place, but one thing we know, our immigration law worked beautifully in the 1950s , up until the 1960s , when people had to demonstrate they had money in their pocket, had no diseases, weren't a felon, learned american history and the constitution, and the one thing they had to promise is that they would not become a burden on the american tax payer. that's what we have to enforce.

    >> mr. cain.

    >> let's make sure -- let's solve all of the problems, it's not one problem. i do believe we can secure the border with a combination of boots on the ground , technology, and a fence, but we have three other problems. we got to secure the border , secondly, let's promote the path to citizenship that's already there. we don't need a new one, we just need to clean up the bureaucracy that's slowing the process down and discouraging people. third thing we need to do, enforce the laws that are states. i believe that the people closest to the problem are the best ones to be able to solve that problem, empower the states to do what the federal government hasn't done, can't do, and won't do. this is how we solve the entire problem.

    >> thank you, governor.

    >> i would just have to say that i agree with so much of what has been said here today. president reagan , when he made his decision back in 1987 , he saw this as a human issue, and i hope that all of us, as we deal with this immigration issue, will always see it as an issue that resolves around real human beings . yes, they came here in an illegal fashion and yes, they should be punished in some fashion. i have two daughters that came here legally of the we can find a solution. if president reagan were here, he would speak to the american people and lay out how we can get there, remembering full well we're dealing with human beings here. but let me say one thing, let's not lose sight of the fact our immigration system is broken and if we want to do something about attracting brain power to this country, if we want to lift real estate values, why is it vancouver is the fastest-growing real estate market in the world today? they allow immigrants in legally.

    >> obviously, it's a problem. we need to remove the easy road to citizenship. nobody has mentioned the fact they qualify for benefits as well, welfare benefits . the state of texas shouldn't be forced to provide free health care and free education , but there is a mess down there, and it's a big mess, and it's the drug war that's going on there, and our drug laws are driving this, so now we're killing thousands and thousands of people, that makes it much more complica complicated, but the people that want big fences and guns, sure, barbed wire fence with machine guns , that's not what america is about. if we had a healthy economy, this wouldn't be such a bad deal, but every time you think about this toughness on the border and i.d. cards and real ideas, it's a penalty against the american people too. i think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. in economic turmoil, people want to leave with their capital and there's capital controls and people control. every time you think about the fence, think about the fences being used against us keeping us in.

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