Newt Gingrich has come a long way since criticizing Latinos a few years ago for continuing to speak “the language of living in a ghetto.” He’s taking Spanish lessons, reaching out to Hispanic community leaders, and supports “finding a way for residency” for some illegal immigrants.
But mounting a successful presidential bid means winning over GOP primary activists–many of whom favor a hard-line immigration crackdown–and that means Gingrich’s moderate positions could spell big trouble for him in the early-voting states, strategists say.
Of the top Republican prospects for 2012, Gingrich leads in Latino outreach.
He recently attended a Texas conference on strengthening Latino and Jewish dialogue, and regularly publishes op-eds in Spanish. On a Tax Day conference call with tea party activists earlier this month, Gingrich called on Republicans to fight the “anti-Hispanic” label.
Gingrich launched “The Americano,” a bilingual news website for Latino conservatives, and in December hosted a two-day forum featuring prominent Latino politicians, religious figures and business leaders. There he declared, “We are not going to deport 11 million people. There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty.”
And in February he sparred with Howard Dean over the DREAM Act. “Residency is very different than citizenship,” Gingrich stressed, proposing that it should be available to people who serve in the military or entered the country as children.
The immigration-reduction group NumbersUSA, which waged war on John McCain in 2008, has already set its sights on Gingrich. The group, which advocates stricter controls on both legal and illegal immigration, has given his immigration agenda a D- grade–the worst of its ranking of the GOP presidential contenders.
Other 2012 Republican candidates haven’t gone as far as Gingrich.
Tim Pawlenty has pushed for the increased use of E-Verify, an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine if their employees are eligible to work. Haley Barbour, when confronted about his lobbying firm’s promotion of a path to citizenship for Mexican illegal immigrants, denied his own involvement. Mike Huckabee has said there’s zero chance of passing comprehensive immigration reform that includes such a citizenship pathway. Michele Bachmann told an Iowa audience that she whole-heartedly agrees with Republican Rep. Steve King, an immigration hard-line. And Mitch Daniels recently said he expects Indiana’s immigration bill to focus more on employers than law enforcement.
Of all the potential 2012 candidates, it’s Gingrich who has been floating new ideas, such as tasking credit card companies with creating guest worker ID cards that track workers’ legal status with a simple swipe.
Lionel Sosa, who has consulted seven Republican presidential campaigns on Hispanic issues, praised Gingrich for being “upfront” on immigration.
“He is far and away the most attractive Republican candidate for Latinos,” Sosa said. “He is thoughtful. He has looked into the issue. He understands it, and he feels there is a way to solve the problem.”
But Gingrich’s views won’t help him with the tea party, which is expected to be influential in some of the early states.
He’s advocated a multi-step approach that first addresses border security problems and employers hiring illegal workers. And he has been quick to recognize the complexities of deporting people who are married with children, or a student who, say, was smuggled over the border at age 3, but has since graduated from a Texas high school and doesn’t speak Spanish.
Hispanic groups are banking that Gingrich will stand behind his principles and not pander to his party’s conservative base during the primary season.
“He’s not following the McCain approach. He’s very courageous,” said Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
When his “ghetto” comment sparked a firestorm in 2007, Gingrich made amends with a three-minute apology on YouTube–in Spanish. It’s that kind of respect that’s enabled him to make inroads among Latinos since his days in public office, said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist who worked with Gingrich during his time in Congress.