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Mitt Romney whacks at Rick Perry over immigration

With Rick Perry proving to be a serious threat to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the former Massachusetts governor swung through Tampa Friday to exploit what some Republican see as Perry’s Achilles heal: immigration.

"We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration,’’ Romney told more than 100 people attending a Republican Hispanic conference in Tampa. " As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and I strengthened the authority our state troopers had to enforce existing immigration laws."

Romney, 64, never mentioned by name the Texas governor, who leads Romney in most national polls as well as in early primary and caucus state. But immigration is a new issue of focus for Romney in this campaign cycle, and his campaign knows that Perry, 61, is already facing criticism from conservatives for not taking a hard enough line on illegal immigration.

Perry, for instance, in 2001 signed a Texas version of the "Dream Act" that made Texas the first state to allow in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants - much like the bill Romney boasted of killing in Massachusetts.

Illegal immigration remains a hot button issues among Republican activists, though leaders in Texas - where 38 percent of the population is Hispanic - have tended to take a more moderate approach to the issue. Perry, for instance, said last year he had no interest in passing a tough Arizona-style immigration law for his border state.

"As governor of Texas, a state that has more than 1200 miles of border with Mexico, Gov. Perry understands first hand the need to secure our border, something the federal government has failed at,’’ said Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner. "Because of the federal government’s inaction, Texas has spent more than $400 million on border security since 2005. Before you discuss comprehensive immigration reform the border has to be secured."

Especially in states like Florida where Hispanic voters are heavily courted swing voters, talking tough on immigration can backfire if the rhetoric comes off too harsh. Romney took a hard line on immigration in 2008 and wound up winning just nine percent of the Cuban vote and 21 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote in Florida’s Republican primary. Arizona John McCain won 54 percent and 53 percent respectively and won Florida’s primary.

Speaking Friday to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, Romney was careful to differentiate between immigrants and illegal immigrants

"I am a great proponent of legal immigration. Many of you are living proof of the unique strength of America that is constantly renewed by new Americans,’’ Romney said, arguing that Republicans can and should do a better job winning over Hispanic voters

Posted by Adam C. Smith