Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who backed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, hedged Sunday on whether illegal immigrants who have gone to school in the United States should become eligible for federal student aid such as Pell grants and subsidized federal student loans.
"I'm not sure that I would support that," Huckabee told ABC News, "it was a different program in Arkansas."
Huckabee's failure to take a clear position on federal student aid while appearing on ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" drew swift rebukes from two Republican rivals.
"Gov. Romney does not support providing federal taxpayer-funded student aid intended for legal residents going to illegal immigrants," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told ABC News. "Mike Huckabee's position [in Arkansas] that taxpayer dollars meant for students who are legal residents should also be made available to illegal immigrants puts him squarely at odds with the American taxpayer."
Echoing a line that Romney used against Huckabee in last week's CNN/YouTube debate, Madden added, "Mike Huckabee needs to understand that it's not his money. It's the taxpayers' money."
Huckabee's indecision on federal student aid was also criticized by the campaign of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
"Children who are born in this country are U.S. citizens and entitled to the privileges of citizenship," said Thompson spokeswoman Karen Hanretty. "Those in our country illegally are not. It's that simple."
Huckabee appeared on "This Week" on the same day that a highly respected poll showed him as the new Republican leader in Iowa.
Huckabee leads the GOP field with 29 percent support, according to a Des Moines Register poll released Sunday. Romney has 24 percent, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has 13 percent, and Thompson has 9 percent. The Iowa Republican Caucuses take place on Jan. 3.
In-state tuition for illegal immigrants was never enacted in Arkansas. But Huckabee's rivals believe that his momentum in Iowa can be stopped once his views on public benefits for the children of illegal immigrants become more widely known.
Asked on "This Week" about his Arkansas record, the former Baptist minister said, "You don't punish a child because a parent committed a crime, or committed a sin, you just don't do it."
Huckabee did not rule out that his principle might extend to the federal level.
He suggested, however, that he might view state and federal benefit questions differently.
"It's the difference between being punished and being rewarded," said Huckabee. ". . . the point in Arkansas was, we had kids who had been in our schools, by law. And to simply shut them out of any additional educational advancement, to me, seemed not only in their worst interests, but ours, as well as the state's."