The "New Newt" may have tripped himself up on an old issue.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich knew going into last night's Republican presidential debate that his front-runner status could be precarious and that his record in Washington going back 20 years was filled with possible problems and potential catastrophes.
What caused the difficulty last night was immigration--specifically, Gingrich's long-time support for allowing illegal residents to remain in the United States if they have resided in the country for a lengthy period, paid taxes, and raised families. In the parlance of conservative purists on the issue, that's amnesty, and it's unacceptable.
Gingrich refused to changed his view and he argued for compassion. "I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter-century, who have children and grandchildren, separate them from their families, and expel them," he said.
He added that he doesn't believe that the Republican party, which "says it's the party of the family, is going to adopt a policy that destroys families that have been here a quarter century."
"I'm prepared to take the heat," Gingrich noted, "to say 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."
This compassion argument got Texas Gov. Rick Perry into trouble in an earlier debate when he said those who reject a moderate course on immigration "don't have a heart." This offended many people who strongly oppose illegal immigration and the episode hurt Perry's candidacy.
Gingrich's opponents pounced. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said treating illegal immigration in a lenient way will "only encourage more people to do the same thing." The campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota sent out an email that Gingrich's "immigration policy effectively equates to amnesty for foreigners residing in the United States unlawfully."
Unfortunately for Gingrich, his position on illegal immigration is unpopular among many conservatives in Iowa, which holds the first caucuses in the GOP presidential nominating processs in less than six weeks.
Gingrich has been trying to show a less abrasive side and he emerged in debates as the true intellectual in the race and the GOP's idea man.
But if Gingrich startes to fade, it will be a familiar story. Bachmann, Perry, and businessman Herman Cain surged briefly to the head of the field and then dropped back. Meanwhile, long-time front runner Romney has stayed at or near the top of the polls. Romney gave another steady, well-informed performance in last night's debate.