Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surprised viewers of last week's Republican presidential debate with his take on illegal immigrants.
"If you've been here 25 years and you've 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," he said.
His GOP opponents accused Gingrich of endorsing amnesty, a policy many conservatives deem unacceptable.
But the immigration issue is only Gingrich's latest clash with the right.
The trouble started early in Gingrich's presidential campaign. He announced he was running on May 11. Four days later, on NBC's Meet the Press, he had this to say about fellow Republican Paul Ryan's budget proposal: "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering."
Conservatives who backed Ryan's ideas for changing Medicare and other programs were outraged.
Gingrich soon apologized to Ryan and insisted he had been misunderstood. But that week in Dubuque, Iowa, voter Russell Fuhrman confronted Gingrich and called his statement "unforgivable."
"You're an embarrassment to our party," Fuhrman said.
The "social engineering" remark was far from Gingrich's first disagreement with conservatives.
For example, though Gingrich opposed last year's health care law, he had long argued for requiring individuals to buy health insurance — the mandate conservatives despise.
"Unless you have 100 percent coverage, you can't have the right preventive care, and you can't have a rational system," he said in 2005 at a health care forum where he shared the stage with his former nemesis Hillary Clinton. "And so I'm actually in favor of finding a way to say you ought to either have health insurance, or you ought to post a bond."
A new "answers" section on his campaign website aims to explain some of Gingrich's past positions and personal controversies. In a section on health care, the site says Gingrich has changed his stance on insurance mandates. A Fox News interview is posted on the page, in which Gingrich says: "I may once have advocated it. I concluded I was wrong."
That Climate Change Ad
Then there's climate change. Gingrich made an ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2008. They're sitting on a loveseat in front of the Capitol building, gazing at each other with goofy smiles.
"We don't always see eye to eye, do we, Newt?" Pelosi asks. "No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change," Gingrich answers.
When asked about that collaboration at a recent news conference, Gingrich called it "probably the dumbest thing I've done in recent years."
"Because Nancy Pelosi became so radioactive, it didn't matter why I did it," he said. "It was just dumb."
A Path To Governing?
But Gingrich has often said the demand for ideological purity hurts the GOP because it turns off moderate voters. After taking heat for endorsing a moderate Republican in a special congressional election in 2009, Gingrich had this explanation on C-SPAN: "You can have a very, very intense movement at 20 percent. You can't govern. To govern, you've got to get 50 percent plus one after the recount," he said.
Fellow Republican Bob Walker, who served in Congress with Gingrich and is an adviser to his current campaign, says that kind of pragmatism isn't a compromise if the goal is to govern as a conservative.
"What Newt has been extremely good at doing in the past is maintaining those principles, but looking for ways that you reach out to not only a majority in the country, a 51 percent majority, but issues that appeal to 60, 70 and 80 percent of the country," Walker says.
A Question Of Viability?
That was Gingrich's strategy when he led the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, and it often put him at odds with the right wing of his party. Today's Tea Party conservatives don't like the strategy, either.
Lee Edwards, who studies the history of conservatism at the Heritage Foundation, puts it this way: "Certainly he still has a basic conservative philosophy. But of course what it comes down to is: How do you apply that? And so there's going to have to be an accounting taken of, on balance, is this somebody whom Republicans and conservatives will be comfortable with?"
Not really, according to the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth. Spokesman Barney Keller says Gingrich has shown flashes of brilliance in promoting free enterprise, but his past support for the bank bailout, for cap and trade and for the Medicare drug benefit are serious disappointments.
"I think he looks at himself as sort of a benevolent dictator," Keller says. "Only he understands how government can make people's lives better, and that's why we should elect him to be president of the United States, when in reality more government is almost never better."
Gingrich's strong debate performances and enduring reputation as a forceful leader could outweigh those concerns. Edwards at the Heritage Foundation thinks conservative voters may overlook some of Gingrich's baggage if they think he can beat President Obama next fall.
"At the end of the day, the Republicans are going to nominate the man whom they think is not only the most philosophically sound, but the most politically viable and electable," Edwards says.
This week, the reliably conservative editorial board of the Union Leader, the biggest daily newspaper in the critical early primary state of New Hampshire, endorsed Gingrich. The paper described him as a "conservative of courage and conviction." The Gingrich campaign hopes Republican primary voters will agree.
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