Newt Gingrich did not walk on stage at Tuesday's Republican presidential debate planning to make a bold new statement on immigration. In debate prep, the former House speaker spent a lot of time with national security advisers discussing the issue of religious freedom abroad -- a topic he has tried to showcase recently -- but didn't discuss immigration at all.
Besides, when Gingrich made his now-controversial remarks -- that he would permit some long-time illegal immigrants to stay in the United States permanently -- he wasn't saying anything he hadn't said earlier in the campaign. It's just that back then Gingrich was an also-ran and nobody was listening. Now, Gingrich is leading the polls, and people are paying close attention to his every word.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has a bold goal for the next decade: Overhaul the country's immigration system so that every worker in the United States is legal.
"We are not going to deport 11 million people," Gingrich said Thursday as he kicked off his first forum on Latino issues. "There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty."
A possible presidential candidate, Gingrich stressed that his target of establishing an entirely legal work force is "not a call for amnesty." Rather, he said, it's about applying common sense to the immigration debacle.
"Dos y dos son cuatro" (two plus two equals four), he said to chuckles.
Rep. Steve King, an influential figure among social conservatives, says Gingrich's statement "makes it harder" for King to support him. "I wouldn't agree with him on that policy," King told Iowa Public TV. "I think that when you give people even a promise that they can stay in the country after they're here illegally, you become more of a magnet."
The ironic thing is, Gingrich and his aides saw it coming. "In August, we had a conversation among the staff that this position was likely to draw criticism," recalls Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. "He reassured us that if we are actually going to solve this problem, we have to do it this way. We are going to campaign like we are going to govern."
Far from being a slip, or a gaffe, Gingrich's statement was a gamble that he can win GOP votes even with a nuanced position on immigration. With his new lead in the polls, the stakes are higher than he could have predicted.