ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Friday exploited a potential weak spot in front-runner Rick Perry’s conservative credentials, aiming to weaken his rival’s lead by focusing on his immigration record.
A day after a debate in Orlando among the Republicans seeking their party’s 2012 presidential nomination, Romney pounded again on Perry’s policy as Texas governor which allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges.
Perry, at the debate, defended the policy and said to those who oppose it, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
But Romney, who led the polls before his main rival entered the race and has been searching for a way back to the top, rejected Perry’s statement on Friday with a shake of his head.
“I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart,” Romney told the Conservative Policy Action Conference of Florida. “It means that you have a heart and a brain.”
Legal immigration, Romney said, is good for the country but illegal immigration is “something I will stop if I’m president.”
Immigration is a hot-button issue in the Republican Party, and wavering from a position of staunch opposition to illegal immigration can damage a presidential candidate in the primary season, when the party’s voters choose its nominee.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the issue was a problem for Perry because taxpayers, focused intently this year on government spending, subsidize the education of the children of illegal immigrants.
“Is it a knockout punch? Probably not. But it’s an issue,” Cardenas told Reuters.
ALIPAC, the political action committee for the group Americans for Legal Immigration, said 81 percent of Americans oppose in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, and Perry had destroyed his chance of winning the Republican nomination by supporting it.
Perry, when he spoke to the conservatives, avoided talking about immigration but appeared to concede he did not have the best debate performance. A Fox News focus group of voters declared former Massachusetts Governor Romney the winner.
“It’s not who is the slickest candidate or who is the smoothest debater that we need to elect,” said Perry.
“We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for the country.”
Perry, a Tea Party favorite, holds a fragile lead in polls over Romney, who is the choice of many mainstream Republicans. A USA Today/Gallup poll on Wednesday found Perry leading Romney 31 percent to 24 percent among likely Republican voters.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said the immigration issue is a weak spot for Perry that puts him at odds with conservative sentiment and he had compounded the problem by suggesting anyone who disagrees with him has no heart.
“It’s a bad issue for him and he made it worse with his response,” said Williams.
President Barack Obama still leads in many polls, but Republicans increasingly see a good chance to oust him from the White House with the U.S. economy struggling to rebound from 9.1 percent unemployment and chronic debt and deficits.
Romney had a brush with controversy on immigration during his 2008 run for president when it was discovered he had hired a company that employed illegal immigrants to work on his lawn. He fired the company.
The conservatives’ hard-line stance against illegal immigration risks alienating the increasingly potent Hispanic vote in the United States.
Additional reporting by Kim Dixon; editing by Todd Eastham