Mitt Romney tried to thread the needle in a speech on Friday to the Republican Hispanic National Assembly. On one hand, he wants to appeal to Hispanic voters, who are an increasingly critical part of the electorate. On the other hand, he wants to exploit his chief opponent’s record on illegal immigration, which is a sore point with the conservative base. So how did he do?

In reaching out to Hispanic voters, Romney made clear that he is a proponent of legal immigration, a point rarely made by GOP contenders in 2008:

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. The promise of America has brought some of the world’s best and brightest to our shores. It’s what brought Mel Martinez, the first Cuban American U.S. senator here. And it brought to America the parents of Marco Rubio, who is one of America’s great leaders today.

And while Romney’s own family doesn’t have an immigrant story to tell, he did stress the theme of upward mobility, which echoes the experience of those who come to America seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families:

I believe in that America. I know you believe in that America. It is an America of freedom and opportunity. A nation where innovation and hard work propel the most powerful economy in the world. A land that is secured by the greatest military the world has ever seen. . . .

My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed, as a lath and plaster carpenter, and he was darn good at it. He learned how to put a handful of nails in his mouth and spit them out, point forward. On their honeymoon, he and Mom drove across the country. Dad sold aluminum paint along the way, to pay for gas and hotels.

There were a lot reasons my father could have given up or set his sights lower. But Dad always believed in America; and in that America, a lath and plaster man could work his way up to running a little car company called American Motors and end up governor of a state where he had once sold aluminum paint.

For my Dad, America was the land of opportunity, where the circumstances of birth are no barrier to achieving one’s dreams. Small business and entrepreneurs were encouraged, and respected, and a good worker could almost always find a good job.

And for good measure he made an economic appeal.(“Hispanics have been hit terribly hard, with an unemployment rate that is higher than the national one”) and took a swipe at the Western Hemisphere’s dictators. (“We can’t lead the world by hoping our enemies — like the rogue regimes in Havana and Caracas — will hate us less.”)

But then, without mentioning Perry, Romney laid out the differences in their records:

I also believe that we must address illegal immigration in a way that is civil but resolute.

Our country must do a better job of securing its borders and as president, I will. That means completing construction of a high-tech fence and investing in adequate manpower and resources.

We must also get tough on employers who hire illegal immigrants. That means putting in place an employment verification system that is both reliable and secure.

Finally, we must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration. 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.

It’s not clear that immigration is still the lightning-rod issue for Republicans that is was in 2008 or that this will be sufficient to pry a significant chunk of the base away from Perry. Those for whom illegal immigration is a vital issue, I would suggest, are likely skeptical about Romney’s conservative bona fides on other issues.

That said, if the name of the game is to throw as many darts as possible at Perry and split up the core conservative base, this strategy may pay off in the primary. (Romney would be happy to see some staunch immigration opponents abandon Perry for Bachmann, thereby carving up votes of staunch conservative.)

But what about in the general election? There, it would seem that Perry’s approach is far more likely to appeal to Hispanic voters and help put together a winning coalition. John McCormack reported on Friday:

“There are places along the border that strategic fencing worked, particularly in the metropolitan areas,” Perry said. “The idea that we’re going to build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville doesn’t make sense ’cause the fact of the matter is you know, number one, you’d never get it built, and it’d cost billions of dollars . . . by the time you go from Tijuana to Brownsville.” Perry said that he does support putting “boots on the ground” and using “aviation assets” (i.e. aerial drones) to secure the border.

When asked about Texas’s law allowing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, Perry said: “I don’t believe these individuals should be punished for a decision their parents made through no fault of their own.” Perry explained that in-state tuition is allowed to any resident who has lived in Texas for three years, graduated from a Texas high school and is on a path to citizenship.

Asked if he’d support a similar law at the federal level known as the Dream Act, Perry said “absolutely not . . . it ought to be a state by state issue.”

Perry also has logic on his side regarding the Dream Act: Do we really think immigrants come across the border because if they have kids and those kids grow up in Texas they’ll get a break on college tuition? (The idea about leaving it to the states also gives conservatives the prospect that they can block these measures on a state-by-state basis.)

Perhaps Perry’s stance is a bridge too far for the base of the Republican Party. It may be that not only Romney, but Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) who can capi­tal­ize on this issue. But should Perry secure the nomination, there will be a significant opportunity for Republicans to reset their stance on illegal immigration. It took Richard Nixon to go to China; maybe it will take Rick Perry to pass comprehensive immigration reform.