Evan Vucci / AP
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 | 12:30 a.m.
Newt Gingrich didn’t rise to the top of the Republican presidential field by being the nicest guy at the debates, nor by delivering safe and simple talking points on the issues.
His style has been blunt, direct, info-packed and insultingly critical of anyone in the room who happens to cross him.
Now, Gingrich is betting that the instincts that brought him this far can carry him over one of the biggest road blocks in the modern GOP: immigration.
When asked a question at Tuesday night’s debate about his plan for dealing with the United States’ illegal immigration problem, Gingrich advocated giving legal status but not citizenship to undocumented immigrants with long-standing ties to the U.S.
It is an attempt to thread the needle between legalization and amnesty for the country’s nearly 11 million undocumented.
“If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you 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,” Gingrich said.
“I don’t see how 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,” he 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.”
Gingrich got the heat he was anticipating right on that stage, as other candidates spewed vitriol at his remarks.
“I don’t agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty,” Rep. Michele Bachmann said to Gingrich. “I don’t agree that we should make 11 million workers who are here illegally legal.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said, “Amnesty is a magnet. When we have had in the past programs that have said that if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay legally for the rest of their life, that’s going to only encourage more people to come here illegally.”
Even Rick Perry, the Texas governor who earlier this fall called his opponents “heartless” toward illegal immigrants, sided with Romney over Gingrich.
“Here we go again, Mitt. You and I standing by each other again, and you used the words about the magnets,” Perry said. “That’s one of the things that we obviously have to do, is to stop those magnets for individuals to come in here.”
The exchange had pundits musing over whether Gingrich’s immigration position would turn the GOP against him.
But more likely, Gingrich is taking a bet that his immigration position will help speak to an oft-ignored voting bloc in the GOP — one that if he can reach, may help put him over the top.
The Sun wrote last week about how the GOP in Nevada has not been doing much to appeal to Latino conservatives. It’s the same situation nation-wide: the GOP has approached the Latino vote with the line of, “We share the same values,” but has not gone much further.
Over the last few election cycles, Hispanic Americans have drifted from a pretty evenly spilt voting community — former Republican President George W. Bush carried 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 — to one that cleaves heavily toward the Democratic party: 77 percent voted for President Barack Obama in 2008.
But according to two polls released last week, Latinos have become disillusioned with the president they once supported in droves. Less than half approve of Obama’s job performance today, and his administration’s reluctance to aggressively pursue comprehensive immigration reforms while it has executed a record-breaking number of deportations plays a significant role in why.
The shift also creates an opening that Gingrich appears to have identified and, skilled debater that he is, addressed Tuesday night by touting his no-citizenship but no-deportations policy.
Immigration doesn’t usually rank as the top priority for Latinos, but it is a defining issue for the community, since so much of the national discussion about immigration is fixated on what to do about the U.S.’s southern border.
Latinos are also a potential primary-rocking voting bloc for Republicans in the early states.
Of the first six state contests, three — Florida, Nevada, and Colorado — boast higher-than average concentrations of Latino voters, and at least 30 percent of the community registers or regularly votes Republican.
It may just be a question of talking to the bloc, which Gingrich did not do per se. Nowhere in his message did he say, “Hey Latinos” (or “Hola Latinos” — Gingrich is studying Spanish), and his position, because it does fall short of the pathway-to-citizenship requirement that exists in some bills, won’t likely win over any liberal-leaning Latinos.
But for those looking for a reason to vote conservative, it just may be enough.