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Mitt Romney highlights his differences with Perry over immigration policy

Mitt Romney never uttered Rick Perry’s name when making his point. He didn’t have to.

Romney used a speech to a Florida gathering of Hispanic Republicans on Friday morning to draw a new contrast with his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination over the politically toxic issue of immigration.

“Our country must do a better job of securing its borders, and as president, I will,” Romney told the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in Tampa, according to his prepared remarks. “That means completing construction of a high-tech fence, and investing in adequate manpower and resources.”

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, added: “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.”

Perry opposes completing the fence between the United States and Mexico — he once called it “idiocy” — and instead supports fencing the border at cities and crossings while using high-tech surveillance elsewhere.

And as governor of Texas, Perry signed into law a bill similar to the one Romney vetoed, providing in-state tuition to students who had lived in Texas for three years and graduated from Texan high schools regardless of their citizenship status.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said Perry is committed to securing the border. “As governor of Texas, a state that has more than 1,200 miles of border with Mexico, Governor Perry understands first hand the need to secure our border, something the federal government has failed at,” Miner said. “Because of the federal government’s inaction, Texas has spent more than $400 million on border security since 2005.”

With his remarks Friday, Romney signaled that he would use immigration and border security to drive a wedge between himself and Perry, perhaps at a series of debates starting Sept. 7 in California.

In Tampa, Romney drew another contrast with Perry, one he has made before, by labeling himself a “conservative businessman” and attacking “career politicians.”

“We stand near a threshold of profound economic misery,” Romney said. “Four more years on the same misguided political path would be disastrous. Career politicians got us into this mess and career politicians can’t get us out. I am a conservative businessman. I have spent most of my life outside of politics, solving real problems in the real economy.”

Miner shot back at Romney, highlighting Perry’s time working on a family farm and serving in the Air Force.

“He must be talking about someone else, since the governor has been a farmer and Air Force pilot for a combined 19 years,” Miner said.

Perry, by definition, is a career politician, having held elective office since 1985. Romney served in office just four years, but had he won his Senate race in 1994, he might have become a career politician, too.

In his Friday speech, Romney previewed his detailed jobs plan, which he will unveil next Tuesday in Nevada. He said it would be “bold, sweeping and specific” — making business taxes competitive with other nations, eliminating regulations and promoting exploration of natural resources.

Romney said his plan would cut federal spending and cap it at 20 percent or less of the gross domestic product while balancing the federal budget.

“But any plan is only as good as the person leading it,” Romney said. “And you know, if we want to create jobs, it helps to have a president who has had a job.”

That last line, one Romney utters frequently on the campaign trail, refers to his 25 years working in the private sector as a management consultant and hedge fund executive — private sector experience he says most of the other candidates lack.

Although Romney originally scripted the line as a swipe against President Obama, it now also serves as a slap at Perry.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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