Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, left, greets Virginia… (Henny Ray Abrams, Associated…)
On a day the Republican presidential field shrunk with the departure of businessman Herman Cain, six candidates courted the tea party activists and conservative voters critical to their primary aspirations by expressing fidelity to the Constitution and commitment to scaling back the power of the federal government.
In a Saturday night Fox News forum hosted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the contenders appeared one at a time, under strict orders to avoid mentioning rivals by name. But the questions from a panel of three GOP state attorneys general did elicit some major policy differences among them, most notably on illegal immigration, a major point of contention on the campaign trail.
A resurgent Newt Gingrich, who topped the field among likely Iowa caucusgoers in a new Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night, defended his controversial proposal to allow some of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants to stay if they are deemed worthy by a citizen review board. Other candidates have argued that system would amount to amnesty, and Gingrich was pressed by Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi to explain how such a program could ensure fairness because neighbors might end up judging their friends.
Gingrich emphasized that only illegal immigrants who had been in the U.S. for more than two decades would be eligible and said his policy team was exploring a requirement in which each family would need a sponsor to stay in the U.S. He added that the citizen boards would act much like juries.
"I believe they are more trustworthy," Gingrich said. "I would rather have my fate decided by a jury of my peers than have my fate determined by a Washington bureaucrat."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, one of the chief critics of Gingrich's plan, was similarly pressed on her proposal to deport the nation's illegal immigrants -- which the Department of Homeland Security has estimated would cost $135 billion.
Asserting that taxpayers were already paying "a very real cost," Bachmann did not provide details about how she would carry out mass deportations.
"It would be enforcement, enforcement at the border" and with immigration agents elsewhere, she said. "What we simply need to do is start enforcing those laws, which we aren't doing."
Mitt Romney, who has criticized Gingrich's plan and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's record of supporting in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants in Texas, sought to highlight his toughness on that issue, noting that as governor of Massachusetts he vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and opposed allowing them to obtain driver's licenses.
Perry stressed his experience with border security issues as governor of Texas, repeating his pledge to "shut down" and secure the border within the first year of his presidency.
The forum Saturday night came in the midst of a rapidly evolving presidential primary contest. Even before Cain dropped out Saturday amid allegations of adultery and sexual harassment, all of the candidates had been trying to usher his onetime supporters into their camps, particularly in Iowa.
In October, the lay Baptist minister and former Godfather's Pizza executive had rocketed to 23% in the Des Moines Register's poll. The new numbers showed Cain plummeting to 8%. Gingrich appeared to have benefited most, rising to the top of the pack with 25%. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas took second place with 18%; Romney was in third with 16%. Bachmann, Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in single digits.
The Huckabee forum offered the candidates -- former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. opted out -- the chance to target the social conservatives who dominate the Iowa caucuses. Those voters flocked to Huckabee's campaign four years ago, helping him pull off a surprising win even though Romney had vastly outspent him.
But Huckabee mainly stayed on the sidelines Saturday night -- allowing the three state attorneys general --Bondi, Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma -- to press candidates on areas that have been their chief vulnerabilities with those conservative voters.
Gingrich was peppered with questions about some of his less conservative stances from the past -- including his advocacy for action on climate change in an ad featuring former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
"I said publicly, sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi is the dumbest single thing I've done in the last few years," Gingrich said, going on to assert that he never favored the cap-and-trade programs to combat climate change that are reviled by many conservatives.
But Perry's campaign quickly circulated an email to reporters noting that Gingrich said in a PBS interview in 2007 that he would strongly support a legislative package that included "mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system." Paul has also criticized Gingrich's shift on that issue, accusing him of "serial hypocrisy" in a Web ad released last week.