Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich threw down the gauntlet to conservative Republicans at Tuesday night's presidential debate, challenging his rivals to upend his argument against mass deportations of illegal immigrants while also taking a huge risk with the law-and-order GOP base.
The Republican presidential hopeful, who has sprung to the top of the polling charts in the past two weeks, warned against a policy that proposes deporting illegals who have been in the country for 25 years. Gingrich said he would not "expel" those who have come to the United States illegally if it happened decades ago.
And in an appeal to family values, he said long-residing illegal aliens shouldn't become citizens, but neither should they be torn apart from their families.
"I don't see how the party that says it's the party of family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families which have been here a quarter century and I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law," he said.
Heat is what he got.
Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both pounced on the suggestion, calling it a form of amnesty that attracts illegal immigration. Romney added that he wants to encourage immigration, especially among those educated at U.S. colleges.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the priority should be securing the border.
"The failure of the federal government to enforce immigration laws costs federal, state and local governments billions of dollars annually," Bachmann said in a statement released by her campaign while the debate was still ongoing.
"Our nation was founded on the rule of law, and we must ensure U.S. immigration laws are respected and enforced not only to preserve our national security, but to protect federal, state, and local budgets, and to curb the unfair strain on our country's job markets," she said.
On Wednesday, Bachmann continued, telling Fox News that Gingrich likes the DREAM Act that gives illegal students in-school tuition and other breaks on a federal level. She added that Gingrich implied that all 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. would "in effect" get a form of amnesty.
Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond warned that Bachmann ought to be careful not to disfigure Gingrich's position on amnesty. Gingrich, he said, opposes the DREAM Act but agrees with a provision to allow illegals who came to the United States as children to earn citizenship if they serve in the U.S. military.
“Michele Bachmann should start telling the truth because people in Iowa can tell when somebody is lying . It won’t be long before they figure out that Michele Bachmann is lying about Newt’s immigration plan," Hammond said.
"We want it made clear Newt is not for amnesty. He is the only candidate with a solution for what to do with illegal immigrants who are already here. Nobody else is being honest and leadership requires honesty. What would Michele Bachmann do? What would Mitt Romney do? Do they have a plan that would actually work? Anything more is lies and rhetoric, and the next president can’t lead on lies and rhetoric," Hammond continued.
Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee Chairman William Gheen predicted that Gingrich's campaign will “implode” as a result of his support for "DREAM Act Amnesty," just as Perry's campaign took a dive after the border-state governor described his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
"Newt Gingrich's campaign will now take the 'Perry Plunge' due to his support for DREAM Act Amnesty," Gheen said in a written statement. "Newt Gingrich is finished!"
Gheen said any form of amnesty for illegals will "harm American workers and students" and lead to derailing future border and immigration enforcement efforts.
"We are waiting to hear one of these GOP candidates give the correct answer to the immigration question," Gheen said. "The correct answer is a pledge to adequately enforce America's existing border and immigration laws -- period!"
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told Fox News that while Gingrich's answer may have satisfied pundits and politicians inside the Beltway, the key to his success will be measured in Iowa.
"There's a very strong anti-illegal immigration contingent among the people who show up at the Iowa caucuses," Sabato said. "That's where Gingrich hopes to make his breakthrough. He has to do well in Iowa in order to compete in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney is doing very well ... He came awfully close Rick Perry's heartless comment, which as we know caused Perry enormous problems."
Ed Rollins, a Fox News political analyst and Bachmann's former campaign manager, said Gingrich must defend his argument now that he has offered it, but "it probably is not the best thing, as front-runner, to come out with."
"It's not going to be the policy. The American public today with the Congress is not going to adopt an immigration policy in the foreseeable future, and I would not want to spend the remaining months of this campaign discussing immigration policy as opposed to border security and basically the defense cuts that are far more credible than any of this," Rollins said.
"At the end of the day there are other things that are more prevalent and certainly the Republican primary we want to talk about how do we maintain our defense, how do we basically create jobs, how do we keep moving forward," he added.