WASHINGTON – Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich took issue with rival Mitt Romney’s hard-line stance on immigration Tuesday night as the GOP candidates returned to a pivotal issue in their latest nationally televised debate.
Gingrich said he did not want the Republican Party, which puts a premium on family values, to promote immigration policies that would break up families that have been in this country for many years by expelling those who are here illegally.
“I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane,” said Gingrich, staking out a moderate position similar to one that proved hazardous to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in earlier debates.
Romney, whose status as the Republican front-runner is threatened by Gingrich’s rise, said that any form of amnesty – such as providing a path to permanent legal residence, as the former House speaker advocated – would become “a magnet” for others to enter the country illegally.
“That will only encourage more people to do the same thing. People respond to incentives,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “If you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you’ll do so.”
Gingrich, who has said he deserves to get heightened scrutiny in his newly prominent role, avoided the media-baiting tactics he often employed in past debates and was measured in his responses.
Interviewed immediately afterward on CNN, which televised the event, he said it was “totally inaccurate” to describe his position as an “open door to illegal immigrant amnesty,” as Michele Bachmann’s campaign charged in a release emailed to reporters during the debate. Gingrich also said he believed the Republican Party had hurt itself with Latino voters and others by adopting harsh policies on immigration.
Debating for the first time in the nation’s capital, the candidates were questioned about national security and economic issues by representatives of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which co-sponsored the forum.
On military spending, the two leading GOP contenders offered somewhat diverging images, with Gingrich presenting a more nuanced position.
Refusing to rule out defense cuts, Gingrich said that there are “some things you can do in defense that are less expensive” and that “if it takes 15 to 20 years to build a weapons system, at a time when Apple changes technology every nine months, there’s something profoundly wrong with the system.”
Romney, who has called for a major boost in military spending, offered a more conventional conservative view. He said that efforts to rein in spending for military hardware, including F-22 jet fighters and more aircraft carriers, are already hurting “the capacity of America to defend itself,” even before the $600 billion in automatic cuts that are scheduled to take effect in 2013.