Could Gingrich’s Immigration Stance Boost His 2012 Chances?

With his newfound perch at the top of the polls, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich opted to take a risk at Tuesday night’s debate , touting a more moderate stance on illegal immigration than has yet been expressed by any other Republican candidate besides Gov. Rick Perry.

But while Perry’s support for in-state college tuition and a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants set off a  fire storm of criticism , Gingrich’s call for a path to legalization for people who have long-established family roots in America may actually boost his White House prospects.

“I think what he’s showing is that he can pick up conservative Latino voters and for the other candidates that’s in doubt,” said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “This could help him go from being the flavor of the month to actually a viable, mainstream Republican candidate.”

While Gingrich’s more moderate immigration stance could help him in a general,  if Perry’s campaign implosion is any indicator, it could most certainly damage his primary election prospects.

“It’s going to hurt him,”  said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. ”Whether it’s going to hurt him as much as it hurt Perry remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say it’s going to hurt.”

Gingrich’s on-stage rivals were quick to criticize him for supporting “amnesty” and a federal “Dream Act,” labels that Perry has yet to shake.

“Look, amnesty is a magnet,” Mitt Romney said. “In order to bring people in legally we’ve got to stop illegal immigration. That means turning off the magnets of amnesty, in-state tuition for illegal aliens, employers that knowingly hire people that have come here illegally.”

Gingrich’s stance may differ widely from his fellow candidates, but it is actually fairly similar to that of the last two men who successfully clinched the Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush, both of which were also accused of supporting amnesty.

During Bush’s second term he pushed for a temporary worker program that would allow undocumented immigrants to register and stay legally as temporary workers. And during the 2008 general election between McCain and Obama, immigration was practically a non-issue because the two candidates shared virtually the same position, Mehlman said.

But while Gingrich’s call for an end to deporting tax-paying, church-going grandparents is fairly consistent with past GOP big-hitters, Mehlman said it is out of touch with today’s Republican voters.

“Basically his position is we are going to allow people to stay here after they get some kind of slap on the wrist and have to jump through a hoop or two,” Mehlman said. “I think there is very much within the mainstream of the Republican Party the idea that we can’t grant amnesty to illegal aliens because that it is simply going to exacerbate the problem.”

Gingrich pushed back against being labeled a supporter of amnesty, telling CNN’s Gloria Borgen immediately after the debate that under his plan “millions will go home.”

“I’m willing to be tough, but I’m not willing to kid people,” he said. “And I can’t imagine any serious person here in this country who believes we’re going to tear families apart that have been here twenty or twenty-five years.”

Without support from the Latino community, Wilkes said a Republican candidate cannot beat Obama. Thus far, only Perry and Gingrich have a chance of building a coalition of support that includes Hispanics, he said.

“Unfortunately there is a strain in the Republican Party that thinks the easy way to victory is to show you are against minorities,” Wilkes said. “The rest have really shot themselves in the foot.”

But Gingrich’s record with Latinos is not without its smudges. In 2007 the former speaker infuriated the Hispanic community after he called Spanish a “ghetto” language.

In a speech against bi-lingual education, Gingrich said schoolchildren should be immersed in English-only classrooms “so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”

“That was a dumb move on his part,” Wilkes said. ”Gingrich has irritated us a number of times over the years but overall when he was speaker of the House he was someone that did try to engage Latinos and he did have a lot of support among conservative Latinos.”