(photo by Lynn Sweet)
WASHINGTON--At the CNN GOP presidential debate on Tuesday, current front-runner Newt Gingrich called for a "humane" immigration policy and said he was "prepared to take the heat" for his stand.
And he's getting it.
In the spin room after the two-hour encounter, rival camps stripped any nuance from Gingrich's position on giving a break to long-term illegal immigrants to the U.S. and drilled in on his "mistake."
"Amnesty is not the way to deal with it," said Alice Stewart, communications chief for Michele Bachmann, a comment echoed by the other camps.
The eight rivals met for a rare debate here, focusing on national security and foreign policy in a session co-sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
Gingrich's immigration policy threatens his front-runner surge far more than the controversy over the million dollars plus he got from his Freddie Mac boondoggle.
There was metaphorical cheering in the green rooms from Gingrich's competition as he talked about a pathway for long-term illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. The group think: Gingrich took a position that will be taken as offering amnesty, which will kill him with social conservatives--whose votes are crucial in GOP primaries.
The gist from the spin room: Social conservatives are window shopping. Gingrich is enjoying a boomlet as the current "flavor of the week." But his lead--as has been true of all the Republican 2012 contenders who peaked way too soon--is fragile and he is not strong enough to stand a controversy on a bread and butter policy issue. Newt's position was seen as an inexplicable mistake.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Howard in the spin room said Gingrich has been talking about for some time having "local citizen boards" ---modeled on the old draft boards--decide who can stay and who should be deported.
With the debate, people finally heard it. Gingrich's rivals did not tear him apart from their podiums. Why do anything when they thought Gingrich shot himself in all ten toes?
Here is what Gingrich said:
GINGRICH: I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them.
I do believe if you've been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties for employers, but I would urge all of you to look at the Krieble Foundation Plan.
I don't see how the -- the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.