At the top of the Republican presidential pack, Newt Gingrich is poised for what some call the "Perry plunge" for supporting part of the pro-immigrant DREAM Act.
Like former frontrunner Rick Perry, Gingrich became a target of criticism among fellow Republicans at Tuesday night's nationally televised debate for saying some people should be allowed to stay in the United States even if they're here illegally.
The former U.S. House Speaker said longtime residents who have raised families here, paid taxes and stayed out of trouble should not face deportation.
"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," Gingrich said during the CNN debate.
"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,' " he said.
Gingrich's comments were quickly blasted on conservative websites like Free Republic. The outrage with Gingrich underscored the danger of having a soft line on immigration as well as the tenuousness of leading the Republican field.
The furor over immigration also points to a conflict in GOP politics, where hard-line immigration positions help win primaries but run the risk of turning off Hispanic voters, one of the fastest-growing segments of the nation's population and electorate.
Gingrich's comments Tuesday were different in style — but nearly identical in substance — to the points made by Perry in previous debates when he defended a bill he signed as Texas governor that gave in-state college tuition breaks to some illegal immigrants.
At the time, the head of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, William Gheen, predicted the Texas governor would have a "Perry Plunge" in the polls. It happened, albeit after back-to-back bad debate performances.
Unlike Perry, Gingrich wasn't booed for his comments. But Gheen says Gingrich will pay nonetheless.
Gheen said his group has monitored Gingrich for some time but said little about him because his campaign was going nowhere.
Gheen also criticized President Barack Obama for his open support for the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants. Despite many American voters opposing the act, Gheen said, Obama has maintained a level of popularity because he's like "this magic black person" in movies — like the actress Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost who "knows everything that needs to be known, and fixes everything that needs to be fixed."
At Tuesday's debate, Gingrich said he only supports the part of the DREAM Act that would allow those who came here illegally as children to become citizens if they served in the military. He didn't say he would allow those accepted to college to get the same citizenship deal.
Though Gingrich didn't say he wanted amnesty for all illegal immigrants, Republican Michele Bachmann claimed he did. "We need to move away from magnets, not offer more," she said.
In Florida, 11 percent of the state's 4 million registered Republicans are Hispanic. Of them, nearly 60 percent live in Miami-Dade County, where 72 percent of the Republican electorate is Hispanic.
Overall, Hispanics account for about 13 percent of all registered voters in Florida. Compare that to Iowa where, according to a 2008 report, about 4.5 percent of the electorate is Hispanic.
Right now, some polls indicate Gingrich leads in Iowa, which holds its caucus Jan. 3. However, Gingrich's stance on immigration has led Iowa's Republican king-maker, Rep. Steve King, to question the speaker's candidacy.
Back in February, at a forum with Howard Dean, the former Democratic leader and presidential candidate lauded Gingrich's immigration position, according to POLITICO.
"That's the kiss of death, that's not going to help you in Iowa." Dean said, according to the story.
Gingrich responded: "No, I think it does actually help — everywhere."