GOP debate: Gingrich divides himself from pack on immigration

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) helped himself with Republican Party insiders but may have done damage with anti-illegal immigration conservatives in a Tuesday debate focused on foreign policy. ­­

The format allowed Gingrich to show off his policy chops and play to an audience filled with high-level Washington insiders, many of whom have known Gingrich for years. The former Speaker — until recently — worked for the American Enterprise Institute, one of the debate’s sponsors.

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But one point that may have played well with the Beltway Republicans could hurt him with the Tea Party base giving Gingrich a second look: his argument against deporting illegal immigrants who have been here for decades.

“If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period,” said Gingrich. “If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Gingrich, who has risen to the top of recent national polls on the race, refused to back down on the point after both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) criticized his views.

"I don't see how 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."

Gingrich correctly predicted that his remarks would draw heat.

The debate was a who’s who of Washington Republicans, including former officials from multiple Republican administrations: President George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of Defense, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief counsel, President Reagan’s attorney general. The debate’s co-sponsors, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, are the two most prominent conservative think tanks in the city.

The former Speaker undoubted helped himself with those Republican insiders who have remained resistant to Romney, showing himself as one of them. But in blasting calls to deport all illegal immigrants he may have alienated a more important group — conservatives in Iowa who are looking for an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney also had a strong debate, showing a detailed understanding of issues ranging from Syria to Afghanistan to the Patriot Act. But it is unlikely this debate alone will help him win over many Republican insiders watching Tuesday's night exchange — most have been closely following the primary all along and if they’re not already supporters, they have ingrained reasons for not jumping on board his campaign.

Those party leaders may have found their man with Gingrich’s recent surge to the top tier — and he may have won some of them over Tuesday night.

Other candidates did not fare as well. Both businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry struggled at times during the debate, avoiding direct answers to some of debate moderator Wolf Blitzer’s questions.

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Cain did not make any major errors like he did when taking an uncomfortably long time to gather his thoughts before delivering a stumbling answer on Libya to a newspaper editorial board in Wisconsin. But he seemed to be ticking off memorized points rather than directly answering questions on aid to Africa and a nuclear Iran. When pressed on those points he often repeated himself rather than elaborating.

Perry did not have any major stumbles but lost an exchange with Bachmann on foreign aid to Pakistan, when she called him “highly naïve” for opposing any help to the country and he responded by calling for a free trade zone among Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Pakistan and India are longtime sworn enemies and trade agreements are unlikely to solve their deep-seeded dislike for one another.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) also had a strong night with the issue on which he diverts from the rest of the candidates — and many Republican voters. He blasted the Patriot Act as “unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty” and called for a much less interventionist policy. His unapologetic embrace of libertarian foreign policy views has been a major part of why most don’t give him much chance for the Republican nomination, but he was articulate in advancing his positions and showed a strong grasp of the issues.

He also had much more time to talk in this debate, sponsored by CNN, than in a CBS-National Journal debate that took place 10 days ago. In that debate he had about 90 seconds to present his views.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) was the only candidate besides Paul who deviated the most from conservative orthodoxy, calling for an immediate drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. While he did not make any errors in the debate, he also didn’t have any game-changing moments to indicate he could jump into the top tier. And this was a debate in which he was expected to shine; it was on foreign policy issues, and he has the most experience in that area, given his time in China as U.S. ambassador.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), similarly, did not have any breakthrough moments and stumbled over a few answers, including a wandering response on immigration, income mobility and blue-collar workers.

Bachmann had a good night and showed off the knowledge she has garnered as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. But she, too, did not have a standout moment that could be replayed on the cable news Wednesday to help gain her some much-needed attention.