By Sean J. Miller - 03/01/11 11:22 AM EST
This is the third in a series of profiles of likely 2012 Republican presidential contenders.
Newt Gingrich’s simultaneous courtship of the base of the Republican Party and Latino voters could pose major problems for his likely bid for the White House.
Putting that call into practice, the former House Speaker has set up a bilingual news and opinion website directed at Latinos and has staked out a nuanced position on immigration reform that some critics have labeled amnesty.
At the same time, Gingrich has tried to woo conservative activists, coming out against the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site in lower Manhattan and calling for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The problem, according to some observers, is that Gingrich’s stance on immigration doesn’t lend itself to an easy explanation for a conservative talk-radio audience.
“If I was his adviser, I would just say, ‘Let’s call a truce on that one for now,’ ” said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who served with Gingrich in the House. “Immigration and illegal aliens are still a very, very hot topic. And people who will be voting in the Republican primary do not want to hear about any backdoor amnesty program.”
Gingrich uses phrases like “pathway to legality” to characterize his support for a measure similar to the DREAM Act, which grants young illegal immigrants U.S. residency if they enroll in college or join the military.
Other powerful players in the GOP, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who have warned conservatives to watch their rhetoric on immigration.
Regardless, many right-wing bloggers have lambasted Gingrich.
Three years after Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) stole the spotlight on immigration issues in the GOP presidential debates, Gingrich says that deporting 11 million illegal aliens is unrealistic.
Gingrich doesn’t shy away from critics who say he is soft on illegal immigration.
“I’m just going to ask them a simple question,” he told The Hill. “They’re going to take somebody who came here at 3 years of age, who doesn’t speak Spanish and who just graduated from a high school in Texas, and they’re going to say to him, ‘We’re going to deport you.’
“That’s certainly their prerogative. I don’t think the country will go for that. I think that’s so lax in a concern for the human beings involved.”
Gingrich emphasizes a border-security-first approach, which he noted in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month.
“I am deeply committed to securing the border,” Gingrich told The Hill. “I am deeply committed to changing the deportation rules for felons and gang members. … But I also think we have a huge challenge — what do you do with the human beings who are engaged, some of whom are married, have children? It’s a very complicated situation, and I don’t you think you can just wave a magic wand and have some kind of a simple, clean answer.”
That’s a position that could cause Gingrich hardship in some early voting states.
In Iowa, Republicans such as Rep. Steve King have taken a hard-line stance against immigration reform, insisting on mass deportation of those in the U.S. illegally.
Robert Haus, an Iowa-based Republican consultant, said Gingrich will likely be challenged on the issue should he launch a presidential bid.
King said, “I want to hear [Gingrich’s] position very carefully before I would critique it. Mine is that the DREAM Act provides amnesty to people that came into this country [illegally], some knowingly and some unknowingly. Where do you draw the line? You’re going to get drug smugglers along with the little ladies.”
Immigration will be an issue for Iowa caucus goers, King said.
“Whether it will be an issue of that level of intensity [as in 2008] not having a candidate in the field who will centralize it is another question,” he said.
During the 2008 Republican presidential primary, Tancredo forced many of the other candidates to shift their positions on immigration.
During a debate in November 2007, Tancredo took note of the political dynamic: “I have to tell you, so far it’s been wonderful, because all I’ve heard so far is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo. It is great! I am so happy to hear it.”
However, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who had been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, subsequently won the nomination.
“As Tom Tancredo dropped out of the race, immigration became discussed less and less, even among Republicans,” King said.
After a failed third-party bid to become governor of Colorado, Tancredo told his supporters of his plan to keep illegal immigration at the center of the GOP’s presidential primary debate.
Gingrich’s strength, as evidenced by his many appearances on Fox News, is transitioning from talking about healthcare reform to unrest in the Middle East to rising oil prices. Without a doubt, Gingrich will be a force to be reckoned with during the presidential debates.
“He can get into the weeds of the weeds,” Kingston said.
The 67-year-old also has shrewdly recast his public image. As House Speaker, he was a partisan who clashed repeatedly with President Clinton. Gingrich went through two messy divorces, and had an extramarital affair as he led the effort to impeach Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He admitted his infidelity five years ago, making it less of a story now.
In 2003, he founded the Center for Health Transformation, and for many years stressed the need for “bipartisan solutions.”
Gingrich’s weakness is retail politics, where he can be brusque.
After his speech at CPAC, Gingrich made his way to the basement of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, where “radio row” was set up for interviews.
Along the way, conferees asked him to pose for photos and sign autographs. After he disengaged from one group, two young women asked him to pose for another photo.
“Very quickly,” he said, before getting on the escalator with his staff and security.
Kingston said glad-handing has never been Gingrich’s strength.
“He’s not going to sit around and eat barbecue and talk about last week’s bird hunt,” the 10-term lawmaker said.
Kingston compared Gingrich to Babe Ruth, who hit 714 home runs but also struck out 1,330 times: “That’s his nature: to come up with a lot of ideas, and some of them aren’t workable, but other things, like the ‘Contract With America,’ are major changes in American policy.”