With the GOP race rapidly narrowing to a contest between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, their clear divergence on issues such as immigration has the potential to sway voters from one camp to the other.
And while recent polling shows immigration is not currently a hot topic among Iowa voters, one expert says Gingrich's moderate stance on the issue has left the current front runner vulnerable to attack.
"If Romney really wants to recover from the sudden position of being in third place here in Iowa, he had better bring (immigration) up at the debate on Saturday at Drake University," says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University and analyst for CNN en Espanol.
"Immigration can be a searing kind of issue," he says. He adds that Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, has been a prominent voice against illegal immigration and, paired with some high-profile raids on meat-packing plants, has heightened awareness of the issue in the state.
Gingrich, who leads rivals in Iowa, made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he said during a debate tax-paying, law-abiding immigrants who are here illegally but have community ties should be offered a path to citizenship.
"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 of a century," Gingrich had said.
Romney, asked by the debate moderator to respond to Gingrich's comments, countered that, "amnesty is a magnet."
"People respond to incentives and if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so," Romney said. Romney has also faced criticism for taking a decidedly harder stance on immigration in recent years; he's previously said he did not support "rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country."
Each of Gingrich's opponents, including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, all of whom are competing vigorously in Iowa, have eschewed the idea of amnesty. But whereas Texas Gov. Rick Perry's popularity took a dive following remarks he made defending a Texas law that grants children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, Gingrich's rise has not yet been slowed by his comments. Polls indicate the down economy is weighing more on voters' minds.
"There's not much evidence that Gingrich's immigration stance will prove to be an issue," wrote Public Policy Polling's Tom Jensen, in a blog breaking down survey results released Monday. "Only 29 percent of caucus voters think illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years and paid their taxes and obeyed the law should be deported, to 44 percent who think they should not be."
About a third of respondents were undecided on the deportation question, according to the poll, which was conducted from Dec. 3-5 and surveyed 572 likely Iowa Republican voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percent.
Just 3 percent of respondents said illegal immigration was the top issue to them, with an overwhelming majority citing reducing government spending or jobs and the economy as most important, according to the PPP poll. The same was true of an ABC News/Washington Post poll, also released on Tuesday.
But Schmidt says all it takes is for one Republican to attack Gingrich as being soft on illegal immigrants to make it a much-talked about issue leading up to the Jan. 3 caucus.
"For Rick Perry it became a political issue; it definitely skunked him in Iowa and generated a lot of reaction about how he wants to spend taxpayer money on illegals," he says. "You cannot afford to lose any of the many slices of GOP salami that you have to put together to make a successful win at the caucuses."
The Republican field is set to square off in a debate in Iowa on Saturday.