Frontrunner Newt Gingrich came under fire at the Republican presidential nomination debate tonight after he was accused of proposing an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The former House Speaker’s rivals pounced after he said he supported finding a way to allow longtime illegal immigrants to stay in America legally.
‘I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane about enforcing the law,’ said Mr Gingrich, clearly anticipating a backlash from grass roots conservatives angry over the 12 million immigrants living illegally in the US.
Michele Bachmann immediately claimed: ‘If I understand correctly, that would make eleven million people here illegally be legal.’
Mitt Romney, sitting just behind Mr Gingrich in the latest polls, added: ‘Amnesty is a magnet. There is no question that we are going to say to people who came here illegally that they are going to stay and become permanent residents of the United States.
‘This is a party that loves legal immigration. But we have to stop illegal immigration. People respond to incentives. If people can become permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, that’s what they will do,’ he added.
Until immigration was broached, none of the other candidates had dared to challenge Mr Gingrich, fearing his sharp tongue and vaunted debating skills.
He stole a march on his rivals by producing confident responses to key foreign policy questions.
Mr Gingrich produced his strongest words for the Middle East, claiming the west ‘could break Iran within a year if governments worked together’.
He said that ending gasoline sales to Iran and sabotaging its refineries would lead to the collapse of the Iranian government and end its nuclear ambitions.
Bombing Iran would only be a last resort and would come with a goal of bringing about the downfall of the government, he added.
When the first jab came, it was predictable that it would come from the combative Mrs Bachmann, who has made a point of attacking the favourite-of-the-week in most of the first 10 GOP showdowns.
It was equally predictable that the veteran politician wouldn’t back down.
He claimed that if foreigners came to the U.S. recently they should be kicked out.
But he insisted: ‘I don’t see any reason to punish someone who came here at three years of age and wants to serve the United States of America.’
‘I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here for a quarter of a century and who have children and grandchildren and who are members of the community who might have done something 25 years ago and split them up from their families and expel them,’ he added.
He said he cannot believe that ‘the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt a policy that destroys families that have been here a quarter century.’
Unwilling to concede the point, Mr Romney said: ‘I am not going to start drawing the line here about who gets to stay and who gets to go.
‘The point is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people should come here illegally and stay here legally.’
The row was the chief sticking point in CNN’s ‘National Security Debate’ screened live from ‘Constitution Hall’ in Washington, just steps from the White House.
As expected, President Obama was the chief target of all eight presidential hopefuls.
But there was little of the bickering – or gaffes – that have characterized some of the past showdowns.
Other than perhaps the ex-Speaker’s controversial stand on immigration, there was nothing that was likely to alter the basic contours of the race so far.
Mr. Gingrich, fresh from a spurt in the polls, was otherwise sure-footed on subjects like foreign policy that played to his strengths.
He conceded he would support an Israeli strike against Iran, but only as ‘a last recourse’ and if it brought about regime change in Tehran.
THE DEBATE’S WINNERS
NEWT GINGRICH: The former House speaker and presidential frontrunner took an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality as he cruised through another debate.
MITT ROMNEY: Though he didn’t have the same lustre, even Newt Gingrich admitted after the debate that Romney will be one of the last two Republicans standing.
MICHELE BACHMANN: Serving on the House Intelligence Committee has served her well, as she seemed to have the best answers on dealing with Pakistan.
JON HUNTSMAN: He’s got a lot to say when the other candidates let him speak, and was much more aggressive, not backing down on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan when challenged by Romney.
THE DEBATE’S LOSERS
HERMAN CAIN: The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO struggled through this one, proving that he may be able to spin a good ‘9-9-9’ plan, but foreign policy’s not his strong suit.
RON PAUL: Though a Libertarian favorite, he was shamed by Newt Gingrich after offering that the U.S. caught Timothy McVeigh without the Patriot Act – AFTER the terrorist had killed 168 people, including dozens of children.
RICK PERRY: Though he made leaps and bounds from his cringe-worthy ‘oops’ catastrophe two weeks ago, there was nothing unforgettable about his performance.
RICK SANTORUM: This guy should leave many to believe that he introduces himself before vacating the stage and leaving a Rick Santorum cardboard cutout in his place.
Texas Governor Rick Perry also regained his strut following his ‘oops’ moment when he forgot his own economic plan. He proposed a no-fly zone over Syria and repeated his demands for more border security with Mexico.
There was a spat between Mr. Romney and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman who claimed US troops in Afghanistan should be slashed from 100,000 to about 10,000 to 15,000.
The former Massachusetts governor shot back: ‘This is not a time for America to cut and run.’
Although the debate was dominated by security questions, there was no avoiding the spectre of the so-called Washington super committee’s failure to agree on ways to slash $1.2 trillion from the country’s ballooning deficit.
But the candidates were too wary to fall into the trap laid by monitor Wolf Blitzer’s question over whether any of them were prepared to compromise on their pledges not to raise taxes in order to reach a deal.
They argued over cuts to the military, with the very anti-war Ron Paul making his position amply clear to the right-leaning audience.
Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum controversially said he was in favour of religious profiling at airports, specifically mentioning Muslims should be singled out.
Had Mr Gingrich or Mr Romney suggested something similar it would have certainly roused more debate, but few credit Mr Santorum with any real chance of securing the nomination.
Several heated discussions broke out almost from the get-go, as Mr Gingrich and Mr Ron Paul sparred over the Patriot Act as the Washington debate, hosted by CNN kicked off.
Gingrich said he supports the anti-terrorism law that civil liberty activists object to for its powers.
The former House speaker said that the United States needs to use every power at its disposal to protect the country from another attack, such as a nuclear weapon.
Paul, a favorite of his party’s libertarian wing, said that police could prevent wife and child beating by putting an officer in every home, and said that’s the same level of intrusion as the Patriot Act.
Paul made that point, and said other investigative techniques captured Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Gingrich jumped at that. ‘Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans,” the former House speaker said.
‘I don’t want a law that says after we lose an entire American city we’re going to find you.’
Bottom of Form
The other candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul agreed that the Patriot Act needs to be strengthened.
Mrs Bachmann and Mr Perry clashed over whether the United States should continue to provide more than $1 billion in aid to Pakistan.
The Texas governor said Pakistan has shown ‘time after time’ that it cannot be trusted and that he would not send the country ‘one penny – period.’
But Bachmann called Perry’s approach is ‘naive,’ arguing that the U.S. needs to have a presence in the region to protect its national security.
She called Pakistan a ‘violent, unstable nation’ with more than a dozen nuclear sites that could be penetrated.
The conversation also got heated between former Utah Gov Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney over the war in Afghanistan.
Huntsman said he stands by a reducing troop levels in the country, saying ‘We have 100,000 troops nation building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built.’
Romney asked Huntsman if he was talking about a withdrawal beginning immediately, chiding Huntsman for a view that puts American advances in Afghanistan ‘at risk.’
‘Did you hear what I said?’ Huntsman asked across the stage, noting that under the Constitution the president is commander in chief.
A few moments later, referring to Vietnam, he said a president had listened to the generals in 1967, and the outcome was not in the interests of the United States.
On immigration, Gingrich said he wouldn’t ‘expel’ those who have come illegally but have made lives in the U.S.
He added that the GOP cannot call itself a party for family when it separates parents from their children born in the U.S.
Bachmann charged that allowing illegal immigrants to stay is a form of amnesty. She and Romney said benefits for illegal immigrants attract others.
But Romney added that he wants to encourage immigration, especially among those educated at U.S. colleges.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued that the priority should be securing the border.
Some of the candidates agreed that the effects of plans to cut the defense budget could be devastating.
Romney said the cuts are undermining troop capacity, delaying the building of aircraft carriers and cutting the capacity of the U.S. to defend itself.
Perry argued that even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opposes the cuts, and said that if Panetta is ‘an honorable man,’ he should resign in protest.
The Pentagon is already facing $450billion in cuts to projected spending over the next 10 years, an amount that could more than double beginning in 2013 under automatic cuts established by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee.
But Gingrich and Paul, refused to say defense spending would be off-limits to budget cuts.
‘DID YOU HEAR WHAT I JUST SAID?’: MEMORABLE QUOTES FROM DEBATE
Ron Paul (on the Patriot Act): ‘I think the patriot act is unpatriotic because it undermines liberty… Don’t be willing to sacrifice liberty for security. You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights.’
Ron Paul: ‘[Timothy] McVeigh was a vicious terrorist. He was arrested. Terrorism still on the books, internationally and nationally, is a criminal – it’s a crime, and we should deal with it. We dealt with it rather well with Timothy McVeigh.’
Newt Gingrich: ‘McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point.’
Mitt Romney: ‘Are you suggesting, governor, that we just take all our troops out next week?’
Jon Huntsman: ‘Did you hear what I just said? I said we should draw down from 100,000. We don’t need 100,000 troops.’
Debate moderator Wolf Blitzer: ‘Is it ok for Muslim Americans to get more intensive pat downs or security when they go through airports than Christian Americans or Jewish Americans?’
Herman Cain: ‘No Blitz, that’s oversimplifying it. I happen to believe that if you allow our intelligence agencies to do their job, they can come up with an approach – I’m sorry Blitz, I meant Wolf, OK? Blitz, Wolf – Since we’re on a blitz debate, I apologize.’
Rick Perry (on the Super Committee’s failure): ‘The president was an absolute failure when it came to this budget process.’
Jon Huntsman: ‘As we talk about forging policy, we need a Washington that works. Today we have a president who can’t lead. We have a congress that can’t make a decision.’
Newt Gingrich: I’m happy to play by the rules – I just don’t really know what they are.
Rick Santorum (on profiling at airports): ‘We should be trying to find the bomber