ORLANDO, Fla. — Keeping the heat on Rick Perry, rivals Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann on Friday challenged his suggestion that people are heartless if they don't support his Texas law that gives some illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at universities.
"If you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart," Romney told a gathering of conservatives in Florida, which has a sizable Hispanic population. "It means that you have a heart and a brain."
In her speech, Bachmann said: "We will not have taxpayer-subsidized benefits for illegal immigrants or their children." She pledged to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, a move that Perry opposes.
One day after a debate that underscored the 2012 GOP front-runner's vulnerability on illegal immigration, his main rivals sought to paint the Texas governor as weak and wrong on an issue that's a priority for conservatives.
Refusing to yield, Perry returned the criticism and brushed off his shaky debate performance a night before.
"It's not who is the slickest candidate or who is the smoothest debater that we need to elect. We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country," Perry said.
"Remember President Clinton? Man, he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. And then the next day, he'd be against ice cubes."
It was a rap against Romney, who has reversed his position on touchstone subjects.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was looking to derail Perry, his biggest threat for the nomination. Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, worked to claw back into the top tier of candidates after being eclipsed by Perry's sudden rise over the past month.
Both see opportunity by assailing Perry for signing a bill that grants in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who have lived in Texas for three years and sign an affidavit stating they will apply for permanent residency as soon as possible.
Perry defended the plan during the debate Thursday night despite its unpopularity among conservatives.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said.
That provided an opening for Perry's rivals.
"I still can't get over that," Romney said Friday about the Texas law. "It is simply wrong to create that kind of magnet. It simply cannot be sustained."
Bachmann suggested that Perry wasn't conservative enough to be the nominee partly because he backed in-state tuition and opposed a border fence.
"If there is any election when we conservatives don't settle, it's this election. This is the election when we can have it all," she said.
She also took a swipe at Romney, who as governor signed into law a health care system that Obama and Democrats used as a model for their national plan. Conservatives detest that measure.
"We have to have a candidate who is right on Obamacare," Bachmann said.
Perry, too, seized on Romney's perceived vulnerability.
"If Romneycare cost Massachusetts 18,000 jobs, just imagine what it would do to the rest of the country," Perry said Friday, citing the conservative Beacon Hill Institute analysis of the state's health care system.
"Government-mandated, government-run health care costs too much ... whether it is passed in Massachusetts or Washington, D.C.," Perry said.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has moderate views on some issues and ranks toward the bottom of early public opinion polls, was ready to defend Perry.
"I believe immigration is a human as well as an economic issue, and that children of illegal immigrants shouldn't be punished for the sins of their parents," Huntsman said in prepared remarks to a crowd that undoubtedly would view some of his positions with skepticism.26 comments on this story
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweaked Romney and Perry, both of whom have struggled to square what they wrote in their respective books on Social Security and health care with the views they espouse on the campaign trail.
"I actually believe all the words that I wrote in my book," Gingrich said.
Among the other presidential contenders scheduled to speak at the conference were former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Georgia businessman Herman Cain.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.