By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 4:37 PM EST, Wed November 23, 2011
Washington (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich said he was ready to "take the heat" for backing limited amnesty for longtime illegal immigrants. The heat came quickly.
Top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination immediately labeled the former House speaker's stance as outright amnesty -- a virtual swear word in to many GOP conservatives.
With Gingrich rising in the polls, his political gamble on such a volatile issue could play well with moderate Republicans and independents crucial to GOP hopes in next year's presidential election.
The question is how much it will hurt him in the Republican primaries that kick off with the Iowa caucuses on January 3.
Conservatives hold more sway in the nominating process, and Gingrich might have alienated a key segment of the party's base support with his comments at Tuesday night's CNN debate that some illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for decades should be allowed to stay.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican, said Wednesday that he disagreed with Gingrich's position, calling it "a form of amnesty" in an interview with Iowa Public Television.
Asked whether the issue meant King would not support Gingrich, King said that it was "something that concerns me" and that he "moved a little bit away last night."
Dana Loesch, a CNN political contributor and St. Louis tea party organizer, said Gingrich's position will anger grass-roots conservatives, but she noted that he has been consistent on the issue in his career.
Loesch called Gingrich's logic on the matter "unsound," adding that "breaking the law for a quarter of a century does not make that law somehow less illegal."
At the same time, Loesch praised Gingrich's overall performance and said she thought he generally helped himself on the night.
That split perspective was reflected in comments on the conservative website TeaPartyNation.com, which ranged from outright anger at Gingrich to praise for what some posters called a reasonable approach.
"I'm sure Newt will be doing a lot of spinning on this, to disarm the ill-effects," said one comment with the tag of Vern Shotwell. "Won't work, at least with me. It's a bad idea."
Another comment, tagged John Delasaux, responded that Gingrich's plan was far short of amnesty.
"Newt's solution is typical of his deeper thought capabilities, and 'regularizing' the illegals by giving them a 'Red Card' which allows them to achieve a legal status, without a path to citizenship, is a very creative solution to an otherwise insoluble problem," said the post by Delasaux.
David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst, noted Gingrich broke from conservative orthodoxy and took a more humane position than people would generally associate with him.
"I think he'll take a hit in the conservative community," Gergen said but added that for moderate Republicans and independents, "seeing the humane side of Gingrich tonight might be a plus."
A CNN/ORC International Poll on Monday put Gingrich atop the GOP presidential field for the first time, with 24% support, compared with 20% for Mitt Romney in second place. However, the poll also found that 9% of respondents said Gingrich was the most likable candidate.
In addition, the poll found that 71% of Republican respondents believe the main focus of immigration policy should be deporting illegal immigrants and stopping more from coming, compared with 42% of Democrats and 54% of independents.
Toward the end of Tuesday's debate on national security, Gingrich called for illegal immigrants with little history or ties to the United States to get kicked out. However, he took a different approach with those who have settled in the country and become community members and contributors to society.
"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.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who usually is more moderate than Gingrich, immediately took exception by saying such a policy would attract more illegal immigrants.
"Amnesty is a magnet," Romney said, but Gingrich was un-swayed.
"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 responded. "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.' "
On Monday, Gingrich had provided a more detailed description of his plan to CNN, saying long-time illegal immigrants with community ties should be allowed to pay a penalty so they would gain legal status without becoming full citizens.
"You want to become a citizen, you have to go and join at the end of the line the people who are not currently here so that nobody gets cheated for citizenship who's been obeying the law," Gingrich said then. As a practical matter, he added, uprooting families by deporting people with 20- and 30-year histories in the country was "not going to happen."
After Tuesday's debate, Gingrich told CNN that he wasn't talking about any kind of blanket amnesty.
"There's lots of people who will go home" because they are illegal immigrants with no ties or roots in the United States, he said. "There's also millions who will end up staying.
"I want to be tough, but I do not want to kid people," Gingrich said, adding that he can't imagine "any reasonable person" who wants to "tear families apart."
He also acknowledged a desire to make the Republican Party more palatable to Hispanic voters, a key voting demographic that opposes conservative immigration policies.
"It's not just the Hispanic community, but we have people who come to America from the whole planet," Gingrich said, later adding: "It's important for us to unify the country by having an honest conversation, not just a series of slogans."
A few minutes later, though, conservative candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota summed up the tea party sentiment about Gingrich's position, saying: "If you're legalizing 11 million workers, it sounds like amnesty to me."
Romney told reporters on Wednesday that Gingrich's position "offered a new doorway to amnesty."
"My view is people who come into this country illegally should not have a special break or special pathway to become permanent residents or citizens of this country," Romney said. "They should be in line or the back of the line with other people who want to come here legally."
However, former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who co-sponsored major immigration legislation in 1986, said Gingrich was making sense in view of current realities.
"I think you have to do something like that," Simpson told CNN. "What are you going to do, deport them all?"
He had another tip for those confronting the issue today: Avoid referring to the solution as a form of amnesty.
"We never used the word 'amnesty' because it's a flash word" that "gets people all juiced up," Simpson said.