ATLANTA — Newt Gingrich has charged into the fray over illegal immigration, risking conservative ire just as his Republican presidential campaign — once declared all but dead — has vaulted into front-runner status.
The firebrand former House speaker broke with what has become a reflexive Republican hard line on immigration, calling for "humane" treatment for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, establishing deep family and community ties.
Gingrich suggested they should be provided a pathway to legal residency but not citizenship. Republicans, he said, should see illegal immigrants through the prism of another issue near and dear to the GOP faithful: family values.
"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 said at a televised debate Tuesday night.
The response was swift.
Some conservatives asserted he had wounded his candidacy, perhaps fatally.
"Newt did himself significant harm tonight on immigration among caucus and primary voters," tweeted Tim Albrecht, deputy chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whose state holds the lead-off caucuses in January.
Immigration has proven to be politically treacherous for Republicans trying to appeal to the party's conservative base. Just ask Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said critics of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants "did not have a heart." Perry had to apologize for the remark.
William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said Gingrich's campaign "will now take the 'Perry plunge.'"
But others praised Gingrich for emerging as a "voice of reason" on an emotionally charged topic.
"With me, personally, I fall right in line with him," said Columbia, S.C., Gingrich supporter Allen Olson, a former tea party official. "It's utterly impossible to round up 12 million people and ship them off."
The stance is not a new one for Gingrich. Aides say he was saying the same thing at town halls and forums long before he was running for president. It's laid out clearly on a campaign Web page.
What is new is the scrutiny he's receiving. Recent polls have shown Gingrich at or near the top of the Republican field, along with Mitt Romney. With a little less than six weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, people are listening to the former Georgia congressman.
And far from a stumble, Tuesday night's remarks seemed a calculated tactic to draw a contrast with Romney, whom he now sees as his chief rival to the party nomination and who has had his own trouble with conservatives, largely because of the health care overhaul law he pushed through as governor of Massachusetts.
But Romney has been tough on illegal immigration while running for president. He said Tuesday night that what Gingrich was proposing would act as a magnet for foreigners to enter the country illegally.
The Gingrich team countered by pointing to comments Romney made on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2007, during which he called proposals similar to the one Gingrich was backing "reasonable."
In Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday, Romney didn't address those past comments directly.
"My view is that those people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line," he told reporters. "And those people who have come here illegally should not be given a special deal."
Opponents of illegal immigration say Gingrich has a checkered history on the topic.
While in Congress, Gingrich voted for amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986 and for smaller, more specific amnesties throughout the 1990s, said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which advocates tighter immigration controls. The organization gave Gingrich a "D'' for his time in Congress.
Beck said he believed Gingrich was playing to the Republican establishment, which has been softer on illegal immigration than the grass-roots wing of the party.
But the Gingrich team worked furiously Wednesday to fend off a potential backlash, rushing out several news releases praising his stance, including one with remarks from the son of former President Ronald Reagan.
"My father never would have broken up a family to try and make, in fact, a point on immigration," Michael Reagan said on Fox News. "And so he would have applauded Newt Gingrich on that."
Gingrich himself said he is "prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chuckled when asked about Gingrich's remarks. Chambliss was booed in 2007 at an annual meeting of the Georgia Republican Party for championing an amnesty program similar to what Gingrich is pushing now. One of his critics at the time, Chambliss said, was Gingrich.
"But I wouldn't underestimate Newt," Chambliss continued. "He's one of the smartest politicians out there, and don't think he hasn't thought this through."
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Tom Beaumont in Iowa contributed to this report.