WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich finally reached front-runner status this week after a long climb and may now have drawn the wrath of conservatives by professing a moderate position on illegal immigration.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives was sailing along confidently at a CNN-sponsored debate on Tuesday night and seemed to be wearing the front-runner label with pride after seeing his campaign nearly collapse six months ago.
But toward the end of the two-hour debate, Gingrich declared himself in favor of a comprehensive immigration overhaul that would include a guest-worker program for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.
Many Americans, including current Democratic President Barack Obama and former Republican President George W. Bush, back that approach.
But to the conservatives who tend to vote in the Republican presidential primary races, the loquacious Gingrich may have talked himself into a corner.
“If you’ve been here 25 years and you’ve 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,” he said.
Rival Michele Bachmann was quick to pounce. “He wants to legalize 11 million illegal aliens in the United States,” the representative told CNN after the debate.
When Bush attempted to get a similar immigration plan through Congress in 2007, opponents called lawmakers so often in protest that it shut down the phone system. By supporting the Bush plan, Republican Senator John McCain, then running for president, almost saw his candidacy run out of money.
The collapse of the legislation has made it hard to bring up the issue again. Obama has shied away from it despite promising to do so in his 2008 campaign, saying there is a lack of political will to tackle the problem.
“It was an unnecessary position for Gingrich to take,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “He’s surging in the polls. The last thing he wants to do is get on the other side of Republican primary voters by getting into an intellectual debate.”
Gingrich will have some explaining to do in Iowa, where he has jumped into the lead in polls among the social conservatives who dominate the state’s Republican Party. Iowa holds the first U.S. nominating contest of 2012 on January 3.
“There is a professional cottage industry that exists within the conservative universe that is intensely focused on the details of this issue, and Newt for better or for worse walked squarely into a hornet’s nest,” said Republican strategist Phil Musser.
Gingrich has risen to the top despite personal baggage and a number of questions that have dogged him for years, becoming the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney now that Rick Perry and Herman Cain have faded.
He seemed undamaged by last week’s revelations he received up to $1.8 million in consulting fees from troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, a disclosure that made clear he is a Washington insider who has profited from the culture of consultants he likes to denounce.
It would be easy to surmise that Gingrich rival Mitt Romney could gain from Gingrich’s mistake, but that may not be the case.
The former Massachusetts governor has been tough on illegal immigration throughout the campaign, and was a chief tormentor of Perry, who as Texas governor approved a plan to let the children of illegal immigration gain tuition assistance to Texas colleges.
While Romney said he disagreed with Gingrich’s position, he seemed to offer a waffling response.
“I‘m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” he said.
Editing by Peter Cooney