The depth of Newt Gingrich's problem with the immigration issue is becoming more apparent by the day.
Many conservatives are upset with him. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is a leading opponent of illegal immigration, says Gingrich's centrist course has triggered a "viral" opposition among activists on the right. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and one of Gingrich's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, says Gingrich has unwisely "offered a new doorway to amnesty."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, another Republican presidential candidate, argues that Gingrich's position is extreme. "He has said that we should make the 11 million illegal workers that are in this country legal," Bachmann told the PBS Newshour. "....And he probably has the most liberal position on illegal immigration of any of the candidates in the race."
The fuss was triggered by Gingrich's comments during this week's GOP presidential debate in which he favored a moderate approach to illegal immigration. Reacting to the subsequent criticism, he told Fox News Thursday that any suggestion that he favors legalizing 11 million illegals is "explicitly false." But he defended his endorsement of a path to legal status for many undocumented residents if they meet certain standards. "I am for deporting all recent unattached illegals," Gingrich said. "I am for a local citizen panel to consider certification of those who have been here 25 years and have family and community and have been law abiding and tax paying."
Gingrich had done well in the GOP presidential debates until Tuesday night's encounter in Washington, D.C. But he stepped into a thicket of political trouble when he called for a more moderate approach to illegal immigration than many hard-line conservatives can abide.
This stance may work in a general election, when the Republican nominee is expected to court Latinos who feel that the GOP stance on illegals has been vindictive and anti-Hispanic. But the moderate approach doesn't work very well in GOP politics, especially in Iowa where illegal immigration is a big issue.
Anything that smacks of amnesty for illegals is anathema in hard-line GOP circles. And many think that Gingrich's approach is a form of amnesty.
Romney and Bachmann say Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, would reward law-breaking and encourage others to come into the United States illegally because such people would conclude that they could escape punishment.