WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich took a stance on immigration unpopular with many in the Republican party in a primary debate Tuesday night, and will now have to wait to see if he is punished for it by conservatives.
Gingrich, who has come from the back of the pack in the Republican presidential primary to lead in many national polls, refused to play along with the idea -- expressed implicitly by some other candidates -- that the only solution to the problem of undocumented immigration is to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.
"I don't see how the -- 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," Gingrich said. "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."
With his answer, the former speaker of the House from Georgia risked suffering the same fate as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who told those who disagree with his support for in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants that they "don't have a heart," and suffered for it badly with the conservative base.
Gingrich knew what he was doing. He took a long pause before doubling down on his position, after he was criticized by both Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"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, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them," he said.
Gingrich began a discussion on immigration by talking about the need for something like a "World War II selective service board" to review the cases of all those in the country without citizenship. After he finished his first answer on immigration, Bachmann, a Tea Party firebrand whose candidacy has faded and needs a spark, pressed Gingrich by saying that he favored "amnesty."
"I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers legal because that in effect is amnesty. And I also don't agree that you would give the Dream Act on a federal level. And those are two things that I believe that the speaker had been for, and he can speak for himself," Bachmann said.
Gingrich has praised parts of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some young people who came to the United States without documentation.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the debate at DAR Constitution Hall, turned to Romney and pressed him for an answer on the subject. Romney gave a circuitous response that in essence amounted to a rejection and condemnation of Gingrich's position.
"Look, amnesty is a magnet," Romney said. "What when we have had in the past, programs that have said that if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that's going to only encourage more people to come here illegally."
When asked a second time by Blitzer whether Gingrich's idea would "entice others to come to this country illegally," Romney said, "There's no question."
"But to say that we're going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing," he said.
Unlike Perry, who has acknowledged many times that he is not a good debater, Gingrich is a nuanced and articulate spokesman. He argued eloquently for an approach to immigration reform that nonetheless is labeled as "amnesty" by many conservatives simply because it does not favor deporting all those in the country undocumented.
"If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home period," Gingrich said. "If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids, two grandkids, 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."
"The Krieble Foundation has a very good red card program that says you get to be legal but you don't get a path to citizenship. So there's a way to ultimately end up with a country where there's no more illegality, but you haven't automatically given amnesty to anyone," Gingrich said.
Perry was more open to providing some sort of path to citizenship or residency for some undocumented immigrants, although he said it couldn't be done until the border with Mexico is secured.
"I do think that there is a way that after we secure that border, that you can have a process in place for individuals who are law-abiding citizens, who have done only one thing -- as Newt says, 25 years ago or whatever that period of time was -- that you can put something in place that basically continues to keep those families together. But the idea that we're having this long and lengthy conversation here, until we have a secure border, is just an intellectual exercise," Perry said.
Romney replied that he wasn't going to "start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go."
"The point is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people that come here illegally get to stay here for the rest of their life legally," he added.
The progressive Center for American Progress has estimated that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $285 billion to deport the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States over five years.
Attacks on Gingrich came immediately after the immigration exchange. Bachmann's campaign sent out a release during the debate labeled, "Newt Gingrich's Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty."
In the spin room after the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom slammed Gingrich for his comments.
"Mitt Romney is against amnesty, and Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty," Fehrnstrom told the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein.
When Klein pressed Fehrnstrom on whether Romney favors deporting those who are undocumented, the Romney spokesman got testy.
"I just answered your question Phil, and you keep hectoring me about it," Fehrnstrom said. "You turn off the magnets, no in-state tuition, no benefits of any kind, no employment. You put in place an employment verification system with penalties for employers that hire illegals, that will shut off access to the job market, and they will self retreat. They will go to their countries."
Dana Loesch, a Tea Party activist from St. Louis who is a CNN contributor, said right after the debate that the immigration issue "blew up in Newt Gingrich's face."
"He had a Rick Perry heartless moment with this. I think this is really going to impact him tomorrow. It's really going to impact him with grassroots conservatives," Loesch said.
In an interview with CNN afterward, Gingrich said Bachmann's charge that he favors amnesty is "just totally inaccurate."
"I want to say 'go home' to lots of people. I want to create a border that is controlled. I want a guest worker program outsourced to American Express or Visa or Mastercard. I want English as the official language of government," Gingrich said. "I'm willing to be tough, but I'm not willing to kid people. And I can't imagine any serious person here in this country who believes that we ought to tear families apart that have been here 20 or 25 years."
CNN followed that up with an interview with Bachmann.
"He wants to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants," she said. "It sounds like amnesty to me."
A Bachmann spokeswoman did not respond when asked in an email whether the congresswoman believes that all people in the U.S. without proper documentation should be deported.
The slideshow below has more details on Newt Gingrich: