Romney: opponents of illegal immigration "have a heart and a brain"

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, makes a comment as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, listens during a Fox News/Google debate Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011, in Orlando, Fla.
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Mitt Romney on Friday took his attacks on Republican rival Rick Perry to a large audience of Florida conservatives, braving possible blowback from activists receptive to Perry's bedrock conservatism.

But the former Massachusetts governor was careful to also emphasis an issue where he is further to the right than Perry -- immigration.

Responding to a Perry's assertion at Thursday night's candidate debate that people who opposed his policy offering in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants didn't "have a heart," Romney said: "I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain."

He told the audience of about 500 people at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he supports an E-verify system to ensure that employers hire only legal immigrants and also construction of a border fence, a position that far-right conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann have advocated.

Romney also continued to draw contrasts between his preparation to become president and Perry's, emphasizing his role creating jobs as the co-founder of private equity firm Bain Capital compared to the three-term Texas governor's career in public service.

"People who've been in the private sector understand how the economy works at the level of job creation," he said. "People who work in government all their life just don't understand that."

Romney's most robust applause came in response to his criticism of China, which he said is hurting the United States with a policy of currency manipulation. "It's time for us to recognize cheaters for what they are," he said.

"And on my first day in office, I promise to sign an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator." He added said he would also implement a tax on Chinese goods as long as the country's currency policy remains unchanged.

Watch highlights from CPAC in Orlando below:

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.