The debate, which was sponsored by Fox News and included questions from the populace via YouTube, featured Perry fending verbal jabs from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on immigration issues such as his support for federal legislation that would let the children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"I don't see how it is that a state like Texas -- to go to the University of Texas, if you're an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount," Romney said in his attack. "Four years of college ... almost a $100,000 discount, if you're an illegal alien, to go to University of Texas. If you're a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn't make sense to me."
Perry took it in stride, saying "I feel pretty normal getting criticized by these folks," and countering "there is nobody on this stage who has spent more time working on border security than I have.
"... But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society."
On the issue of borders, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann vowed she "would build a fence on America's southern border, on every mile, on every yard, on every foot, on every inch of the southern border."
"And here's the other thing I would do: I would not allow taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens or for their children."
The Miami Herald reported the other GOP hopefuls also went after Perry, including Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
"I would say he's soft on illegal immigration," Santorum said.
More than 18,000 questions by text and YouTube video were submitted for the debate, Fox News said.
The other candidates who took part included Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Recent public-opinion polls show Perry leading the GOP race, with Romney close behind and the others falling further back.
The largest number of questions submitted beforehand had to do with illegal immigration and other social issues, followed by government spending and debt, a United Press International review of the questions indicated.
After the debate, the GOP candidates were to participate in an Orlando gathering of party activists scheduled to culminate in a straw poll Saturday.