Newt Gingrich’s willingness to let certain illegal aliens avoid deportation has annoyed some and pleased others on the right, leaving open whether it will slow his growing ascendency over the Republican presidential field.
Some suggest the former House speaker did himself in on Nov. 22 when he said in a CNN-hosted Republican candidates’ debate that he favors finding ways to identify illegals who have been long-time, employed, tax-paying and churchgoing contributors to their communities and to give these immigrants permanent resident-worker status — but not citizenship.
“If Gingrich thought his position on immigration was in tune with the general public, let alone conservatives, he’s politically tone deaf,” said Steve Salvi, founder of the Ohio Jobs & Justice Political Action Committee and a tea-party activist. “Gingrich is a fading GOP rose.”
But other tea partyers expressed some grudging admiration for the Georgia Republican’s immigration stand.
“His answer in the CNN debate last Tuesday smacked of honesty and authenticity,” said Dave Pataglia, Pennsylvania tea party member. “Mitt Romney has trouble in this area. Herman Cain comes across as real but lacking depth.”
Mr. Gingrich’s poll numbers show a campaign on the rise: He’s up by four percentage points nationally in the latest poll, and he is sitting even prettier in the early caucus-primary states, with a 13-point lead over his nearest rival in Iowa and a 14-point lead in South Carolina. He’s behind only Mr. Romney in the former Massachusetts governor’s second home state of New Hampshire.
But those polls were completed before voters had time to absorb Mr. Gingrich’s immigration statements, and some Gingrich sympathizers predict consequences for his selective-forgiveness plan.
“Newt did say he would close the border first, but my concern is suddenly every alien will have ‘family’ and have been here 25 years and belong to a church,” said Jan Kroll, Cleveland Tea Party Patriots secretary.
Securing the border is the key, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler said.
“What hurt him was not what he said, but what he didn’t focus on, which is securing our borders,” said Mr. Meckler.
Pollster John Zogby thinks Mr. Gingrich “successfully rebranded himself as ‘the thoughtful one’ — angry but able to control himself because he knows how the system works, and the one most likely to give Mitt Romney the real debate for the heart and soul of the party.”
“Since Republicans always give the watch in the end to the guy who has been around the longest, there is a familiarity with Newt, a sense that he was around during the golden era of Reaganism and the Republican Revolution. In fact, he can claim the gold watch as much as Romney, perhaps,” Mr. Zogby said.
The biggest complaint about Mr. Gingrich on immigration is implicit: Activists who focus on restraining illegal immigration don’t want to break up families, but they don’t trust the government to keep its word on border enforcement.
“Most people don’t want to have any discussion of this type until our borders are secure,” Mr. Meckler told The Washington Times. “History shows us if we discuss this issue … without securing our borders first, we will not secure our borders.”
“True immigration conservatives don’t want amnesty nor in-state tuition for illegals, or the so-called DREAM bill,” Mr. Meckler said. “To give credibility to our immigration laws, all illegals must go, period.”
Democrats introduced the DREAM bill first in 2001 — and again in following years — to give permanent residency status to illegal aliens who meet moral-character, education or military-service standards.
Rule-of-law conservatives reviled the DREAM bill as another form of the amnesty bill signed by President Reagan, That bill failed to block illegals and instead provided incentives for new waves of illegal immigration.
But at least one tea party leader thinks the GOP may eventually have to move closer to Mr. Gingrich on immigration.
“I think we will see a drop in his polling, but I’m not sure how much,” said Mark Kevin Lloyd, a Virginia Tea Party Patriots leader. “This issue is one the GOP wishes would just go away but will have to do something because Obama is going to propose some sort of amnesty, and that will bring out the Latino vote.”
“The GOP will have to somehow blunt that, so we have to be prepared for some sort of deal along the lines Newt is proposing,” Mr. Lloyd said.
Some see the immigration issue as detracting from Mr. Gingrich’s strengths.
“What is most fascinating,” said Mr. Zogby, “is that in my latest poll last week, only 14 percent of likely Republican voters nationwide said they would ‘never vote’ for Gingrich — the lowest figure of any candidate. Compare that with 28 per cent for Romney, 35 percent for Paul, 42 percent for Huntsman.”
“I believe that the sense is that ‘We know Newt, warts and all’ and if he says our immigration policy must be humane that he must know what he is talking about,” said Mr. Zogby. “In other words, he has the creds to go out on a limb.”