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GOP debate: Did Rick Perry survive the attacks of his fellow Republicans?

At Thursday night's Republican presidential candidates debate, the focus was on front-runner Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was the main target of criticism, especially from Mitt Romney.

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Then there’s the hot-button issue of immigration. For all his touting of job creation during his tenure as governor, there’s a controversial side to that too. According to a Center for Immigration Studies report this week, of all the jobs created in Texas since 2007, 81 percent went to immigrants – half of those to illegal immigrants.

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It seems increasingly likely that immigration for Perry will be like the Massachusetts health care program for Romney: the one issue that will not go away until the primary-caucus season is over and the GOP candidate has been chosen.

Meanwhile, Perry has been slipping in several polls – especially in comparison to Mitt Romney.

“Just a few weeks ago, two national polls showed Perry leading Mitt Romney by 12 and 13 points,” Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post Thursday. “This week, two new polls (from USA Today and the New York Times) show that Romney has cut Perry’s lead nearly in half to just 7 points. In South Carolina, Perry once held a commanding 20-point lead over Romney. That lead has narrowed to just 3 points. Just after entering the race, Perry shot into second place in New Hampshire with 18 percent support. Today, a new Suffolk University/WHDH TV poll shows Perry slipping 10 points to fourth place, with just 8 percent of the vote — trailing even Jon Huntsman.”

Still, Perry has a comfortable lead in Florida, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, with 31 percent of the vote, nine points ahead of Romney. That’s a key state with many seniors on Social Security, plus the possibility that it may move up its primary date to give it more clout. (At the same time this poll has Romney beating Obama one-on-one by seven points, while Perry trails Obama slightly.)

The pre-debate hours amounted to a pugilists’ pre-fight stare-down, only this was at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering of religious conservatives organized by Ralph Reed. There, both Romney and Bachmann took not-so-subtle potshots at Perry.

Who won the Thursday night debate? Pundits will pontificate, but Saturday’s Florida Republican Party straw poll may be the best clue.

As Florida Gov. Rick Scott frequently points out, the winner of each of the three previous straw polls also won both the Florida primary and the nomination – Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Bob Dole in 1996. And two out of the three went on to win the White House.

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