Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich took issue with rival Mitt Romney's hard-line stance on immigration Tuesday night as the GOP candidates returned to a pivotal issue in their latest nationally televised debate.
Gingrich said he did not want the Republican Party, which says it puts a premium on "family values," to promote immigration policies that would break up families that have been in this country for many years by expelling those who are here illegally.
"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying 'let's be humane,' " said Gingrich, staking out a moderate position similar to one that proved hazardous to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in earlier debates.
Romney, whose status as the Republican front-runner is threatened by Gingrich's rise, said that any form of amnesty — such as providing a path to permanent legal residence, as the former House speaker advocated — would become "a magnet" for others to enter the country illegally.
"That will only encourage more people to do the same thing. People respond to incentives," the former Massachusetts governor said. "If you could become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so."
Gingrich, who has said he deserves to get heightened scrutiny in his newly prominent role, avoided the media-baiting tactics he often employed in past debates and was measured in his responses.
Interviewed immediately afterward on CNN, which televised the event, he said it was "totally inaccurate" to describe his position as an "open door to illegal immigrant amnesty," as Michele Bachmann's campaign charged in a release emailed to reporters during the debate.
Gingrich also said he believed the Republican Party had hurt itself with Latino voters and others by adopting harsh policies on immigration.
Debating for the first time in the nation's capital, the candidates were questioned about national security and economic issues by representatives of the conservative groups American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which co-sponsored the forum. In addition to immigration, prime topics included military spending, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, with candidates raising the specter of terrorists striking U.S. cities with nuclear bombs.
Among those posing questions were former Reagan administration Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and two controversial members of George W. Bush's administration, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and David Addington, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Addington was greeted with applause by the audience of 2,500 in the DAR Constitution Hall.
On military spending, the two leading GOP contenders offered somewhat diverging images, with Gingrich presenting a more nuanced position.
Refusing to rule out defense cuts, Gingrich said that there were "some things you can do in defense that are less expensive" and that "if it takes 15 to 20 years to build a weapons system, at a time when Apple changes technology every nine months, there's something profoundly wrong with the system."
Romney, who has called for a major boost in military spending, offered a more conventionally conservative view. He said that efforts to rein in spending for military hardware, including F-22 jet fighters and more aircraft carriers, were already hurting "the capacity of America to defend itself," even before the $600 billion in automatic cuts that are scheduled to take effect in 2013.
On Iran's nuclear program, Romney said he would favor "crippling sanctions," but added, "I know it's going to make gasoline more expensive" in the U.S.
Gingrich said he would bomb Iran "as a last recourse" to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon and to overthrow the current regime. He also indicated that he would be willing to send U.S. troops into battle alongside Israeli forces in a conventional attack as an alternative to an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran.
Most of the others agreed, but Jon Huntsman Jr., the former U.S. envoy to China, said sanctions on Iran wouldn't work because China and Russia wouldn't go along. He also joined businessman Herman Cain and Romney in refusing to endorse Perry's recent suggestion of a U.S.-enforced "no-fly" zone over Syria.
There were several sharp exchanges between second-tier candidates. Bachmann called Perry "highly naive" for suggesting that the United States cut off all aid to Pakistan until its leaders demonstrated "that they have America's best interests in mind."
The Minnesota congresswoman, pointing to the danger of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, acknowledged that Pakistan's leaders "certainly aren't looking out for the best interests of the United States. I wouldn't expect them to." But she added that a U.S. presence in Pakistan was needed to protect American interests.