Newt Gingrich picked an odd moment to show he has a heart.
The new and improbable front-runner in the Republican presidential race chose Tuesday night's leadership debate on national security and foreign policy, typically an occasion for the contenders to show their toughest commander-in-chief mettle, to call for a kindler, gentler approach to illegal immigration.
The move could enhance Mr. Gingrich's appeal among Hispanic voters, a group with which the Republican Party has struggled to gain traction. But it could also backfire among the party grassroots, who prefer a hard-line stand on immigration.
Mr. Gingrich, the former GOP Speaker of the House of Representatives who famously made Newsweek's cover as the Grinch in 1994, said he favoured legalizing the immigration status of those who had come to the United States illegally many years ago, but who had been law-abiding and raised a family in the country since their arrival.
"I don't believe that the party that says it's the party of the family is going to say it's going to destroy families that have been here for more than a quarter of a century," Mr. Gingrich said during the CNN debate held in Washington. "I'm prepared to take the heat in saying: Let's be humane in enforcing the law."
The ex-Speaker also said he favoured elements of the so-called DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for young adults in the military who had been brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has strived to prove his conservative bona fides, immediately attacked his opponent for opening the door to an "amnesty" that would only encourage more illegal immigration.
"The idea of focusing a Republican debate on amnesty and who we're going to give it to is a big mistake," countered Mr. Romney, who is still the favourite to win the GOP nomination in spite of Mr. Gingrich's recent surge in the polls.
Mr. Gingrich will find himself on the defensive now. Texas Governor Rick Perry's slide began shortly after his support for in-state tuition fees for illegal immigrants made him a target in a September debate. Mr. Gingrich is likely to face a similar onslaught from his rivals as they jostle for the anybody-but-Romney mantle.
Indeed, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann's campaign put out a release after Tuesday's debate saying Mr. Gingrich had "opened the door to amnesty" for 11 million illegal immigrants.
On most other issues raised in the debate, however, Mr. Gingrich lived up to his reputation as one of the Republican Party's fiercest national-security hawks. He said he favoured extending and expanding powers contained in the Patriot Act that allow the U.S. government to override civil liberties in the war on terrorism.
His stand drew a stinging rebuke from Texas congressman Ron Paul, the Republican Party's resident libertarian, who insisted "you never have to give up liberty for security," and warned against throwing out "so much of what our revolution was fought for."
"The Patriot Act is unpatriotic," Mr. Paul charged.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said he favoured adding religious profiling of Muslims to the list of airport -security tactics used to screen for potential terrorists. Businessman Herman Cain, whose support has eroded rapidly since decade-old sexual-harassment allegations against him came to light, also said he favoured profiling, though he chose to call it "targeted identification."
Mr. Gingrich seemed to revel in the fact that the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden, which was authorized by President Barack Obama, had driven U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low.
"Well, it should have, because we should be furious" with Pakistan, Mr. Gingrich asserted. "You tell the Pakistanis: Help us or get out of the way."
Mr. Perry, who has shown little affinity for foreign policy, did his best to insert himself into the debate, insisting the United States should withhold all aid to Pakistan until it proved it was a U.S. ally. "We need to quit writing blank cheques to these countries," he said.
Ms. Bachmann, whose membership on the House intelligence committee allowed her to talk circles around Mr. Perry, shot back: "We're not writing blank cheques; we're exchanging intelligence."