Gingrich risks conservative ire on immigration
New Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich has risked his recent poll gains with a moderate stance on immigration in the latest TV debate.
The former House of Representatives Speaker said he favoured allowing illegal immigrants who have lived in the US for many years to stay.
His closest competitor, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, was among those who pounced on the remark.
Former frontrunner Rick Perry previously came unstuck on immigration.
Mr Gingrich's gamble came as he and seven other Republican White House hopefuls sparred on national security at a wide-ranging debate in Washington DC, televised on CNN.'Magnet'
"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," Mr Gingrich said.
A sorting of the grown ups from the kids”
"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 which have been here a quarter-century.
"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 they are not separated from their families."
His rivals seized on the remark.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann said: "He wants to legalise 11 million illegal aliens in the United States."
Mr Romney said that any type of pathway to legal status would be a "magnet" for more unlawful crossings from Mexico.
Texas Governor Rick Perry suffered for saying in a previous debate that anyone who opposed his policy of granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants did not have a heart.'Highly naive'
Mr Gingrich's remarks may not play well in conservative Iowa, where Mr Gingrich has surged into the lead in opinion polls.
In January, the Hawkeye State holds the first of the state-by-state nominating contests to pick the Republican candidate who will challenge Barack Obama for the White House in November 2012.
End Quote Tim Albrecht Iowa Governor's chief of staff
Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters”
Tim Albrecht, deputy chief of staff to Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad, said on Twitter: "Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters."
A nationwide poll Republican voters released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University showed Mr Gingrich leading with 26% of support, compared to 22% for Mr Romney. A CNN poll had Mr Gingrich ahead by the same margin.
Mr Gingrich's lenient stance on immigration is one shared by current Democratic President Obama and former Republican President George W Bush.
In one of the sharpest exchanges in Tuesday night's debate, Mr Perry and Mrs Bachmann sparred over Pakistan.
Mr Perry suggested severing financial aid to the strained US ally, as "they've showed us time after time that they can't be trusted".
Mrs Bachmann said he was being "highly naive" because al-Qaeda might obtain Pakistan's nuclear weapons and set off a bomb in a US city.
However, the Texas governor, excoriated after a previous debate for a disastrous memory lapse, survived the night without a major gaffe.Huntsman, Romney clash
Herman Cain - whose campaign has been bedevilled by allegations of sexual harassment and who made headlines last week for appearing confused about US policy on Libya - was judged to have had a subdued night.
Texas congressman Ron Paul clashed with other candidates on the Patriot Act, and on his calls to cut aid to Israel, withdraw troops from Afghanistan and decriminalise drugs.
Former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was deemed to have had his strongest debate so far.
He displayed his grasp of foreign policy and clashed with Mr Romney in suggesting a more rapid drawdown from Afghanistan.
But much of the US media spotlight of the debate focused on Mr Gingrich.
Six months ago his campaign almost collapsed, but he is now the frontrunner, a spot formerly occupied by Mrs Bachmann, Mr Perry and Mr Cain.
Mr Gingrich, 68, led the 1994 Republican revolution that put his party in control of the House for the first time in four decades and was the author of its Contract with America manifesto.