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Texas Governor Rick Perry, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, called former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden a ‘’criminal,’’ putting him at odds with many activists he addressed earlier today at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Perry’s comment also heightened the distinction between himself and U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, another prospective Republican presidential contender.

“We have rules and regulations, and we just can’t have people passing out information that could do damage to our military, that could do damage to our intelligence gathering,” Perry said in an interview for “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing on Bloomberg Television this weekend. “I would suggest to you that he’s more a criminal than he is a whistle blower,” Perry said of Snowden.

The debate over Snowden’s disclosure last year of widespread surveillance by the NSA became a flash point at the conference of Republican activists at National Harbor outside of Washington that will wrap up tomorrow with a straw poll of preference among attendees for the party’s possible presidential candidates.

Audience members listening to a panel on privacy cheered two speakers who defended Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia after his leak of classified documents and is under U.S. indictment for espionage. Some booed former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, another panel member, who called Snowden a “traitor.”

Paul’s Speech

The spying program also was central theme of Paul’s speech to the conference this afternoon, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd. The audience, some wearing red “Stand with Rand” T-shirts, roared with approval when he reminded the audience that he has sued President Barack Obama over the NSA intelligence-gathering efforts revealed by Snowden.

Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas in the border state’s history, also weighed in during the “Political Capital” interview on the congressional debate over revising the nation’s immigration laws. He said President Barack Obama’s administration must secure the U.S. border before passage of any type of bill that might include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

He also questioned Obama’s commitment to protecting the border. “The president of the United States is not interested in securing the border,” Perry said. “If he were, troops would be on the border. The technology would be in place. The focus would be there. It is not there.”

Perry’s Future

Perry, who became governor in December 2000, isn’t seeking re-election this year. During the past few months he’s been traveling the country to assess his prospects a 2016 presidential bid after falling short in his bid for his party’s 2012 nomination.

He dropped out early in the race, and his effort is best remembered for disparaging comments he made about then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and debate performances that even Perry rated as subpar.

In gauging other potential rivals in the 2016 Republican presidential race, Perry, 64, said Senator Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan, is “serving a great role” in Congress.

“I hope that he will continue to be a very powerful voice for devolving power out of Washington back to the states,” Perry said.

On New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, facing criticism for his administration’s apparently politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last year, Perry said he is doing “a hell of a job governing his state.”

He complimented Christie’s appearance yesterday at the CPAC gathering, saying the governor “gives a great speech” and “fires people up.”

Nugent Remark

Perry also addressed a political flap in his home state, where rock star Ted Nugent’s involvement in Republican campaigns has been questioned because of his characterization of Obama as a “subhuman mongrel.”

Nugent has apologized for the remarks, and Perry said the musician, also known for his full-throated advocacy of gun rights, isn’t a racist.

Perry also said he didn’t consider Nugent’s comment about Obama “was as racist as what President Clinton said to Ted Kennedy trying to get him to help his wife in the ‘08 election,’’ Perry said. He was referring to Bill Clinton’s comments during that year’s battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, when the former president said that ‘‘a few years ago” Obama would be “carrying our bags.”

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