TAMPA, Fla. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told an enthusiastic crowd of Hispanic Republicans on Friday that they are "living proof" of the benefits of legal immigration but called for toughening enforcement on illegal immigration.
"Our country must do a better job of securing its borders and as president, I will," the former Massachusetts governor told a meeting of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Florida.
Although he never mentioned Rick Perry's name, Romney clearly was trying to draw a contrast with a chief rival for the GOP nomination. Perry, Texas' longest-serving governor, has been criticized by some fellow conservatives as being too lenient on illegal immigration issues.
Perry now is leading Romney in several national polls some five months before the first votes are cast, and Romney is seeking to make the case – subtly for now – that Perry is not as conservative as he is on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration.
To that end, Romney declared: "We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration."
He argued that the federal government must "get tough" on employers who hire illegal immigrants and said that when he was Massachusetts' governor, he vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and beefed up the powers of state troopers to enforce immigration laws.
Romney also said he supported "completing construction of a high-tech fence" along the US-Mexico border.
A physical fence was built in spots along 2,100-mile border from California to Texas. But a virtual fence along the Mexican border was officially abandoned in January. The project was originally expected to be in place by this year. Instead, only about 53 miles of operational "virtual fence" was put in place in Arizona at a cost of about $15 million a mile.
Perry does not think the U.S. should build a wall spanning the entire Mexican border. And some conservatives cringe at Perry's support of discounted tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants at Texas universities as well as his comment that Arizona's tough-on-immigration law wouldn't be right for Texas.
Beyond the contrast with Perry, the event underscored the importance of Hispanic voters to Republican candidates – there are about 138,000 more Hispanics registered as Democrats in Florida than are registered as Republicans. Romney's remarks clearly resonated with the group.
"The people who came to America did not come for a handout. They came here for opportunity," Romney said. "That is not what brought people to these shores."
Later in the morning, Romney opened his Florida campaign headquarters in Tampa, just a few blocks from where the GOP convention will be held in August of 2012.
Florida Democrats were quick to jump on Romney's Tampa events and his remarks.
During a conference call held an hour and a half after Romney left his state headquarters, State Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando said Romney has flip-flopped on many issues, including immigration, but didn't specify.
Following his stops in Florida, Romney was scheduled to travel to New Hampshire, where he is speaking to a Tea Party Express event