Tonight’s Republican presidential debate on foreign policy managed to touch on a number of important issues, including Iran’s nuclear threat and the prospect of defense cuts. But the most significant moment of the evening came when Newt Gingrich took a stand on immigration that undermined the assumption that he can be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. By stating his support for a policy of selective amnesty for illegal immigrants in this country, the former speaker may have brought his stay atop the GOP field to a close.
Gingrich came into the evening riding high in the polls with some surveys showing that he was now getting much of the Tea Party support that once belonged to Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann during their brief moments at the head of the field. Though Gingrich was right to point out that it is unrealistic and unjust to speak of expelling all 11 million illegals, by stating his support for a path to allow them to stay in the country, he gave Romney the opening he needed to remind conservatives that he is actually to the left on them on a number of major issues.
This is the same land mine that Rick Perry stepped on back in September when he was slaughtered by Romney and the other candidates for his willingness to give in-state university tuition discounts to the children of illegals. Perry never lived down his answer that those who opposed him “didn’t have a heart.” But by actually saying the dreaded “amnesty” word — albeit in the course of a typically professorial lecture about Ronald Reagan’s own support for such a measure that Gingrich backed when he was in Congress — the former speaker actually went much deeper than Perry did.
Perry made sense on this issue, as did Gingrich tonight. But the consequences for Gingrich should be swift and severe. If Perry’s heresy on immigration hurt him badly in Iowa, there’s no reason to believe an even more extreme position by Gingrich will not turn his current high hopes in the Hawkeye state to dust.
As has been the pattern throughout this race, Romney emerges as the default winner after one of his opponent’s missteps. Romney’s performance was steady and solid as usual. He may not have been the only one on stage making sense as, at times, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and even occasionally Rick Perry, all made strong points. The same can also be said of Gingrich, who was doing well until he stepped in it on immigration. Unfortunately for Herman Cain, another debate on foreign policy exposed his major weakness. Ron Paul made the most of his extensive time on camera but his isolationist views just made it clear how out of step he is with the GOP and the country. Jon Huntsman again demonstrated his irrelevance. But Romney made no errors and sounded authoritative and presidential and never strayed from his key points about Obama’s misjudgments. Had Gingrich not stolen the limelight with his unforced error, Romney’s pledge that his first visit to a foreign country after his election would be to Israel might have been the sound byte of the evening.
Coming as it did after a week during which many observers seemed to be dismissing Romney or downplaying the idea that he is the inevitable winner of the nomination, this blow to Gingrich once again raises the question of how Romney can possibly lose in a field where the conservatives are so badly divided. In a race where all those competing for the title of the “not Romney” are flawed, it’s hard to see how any of them, be it Gingrich, Perry, Cain, Bachmann or even Santorum, can possibly emerge triumphant. Tonight’s debate will be a reminder to pundits who were seizing on Gingrich’s latest poll numbers as proof of his viability the way they did Cain’s and Perry’s before him, that it is a mistake to get too excited about a momentary surge in public opinion.
Conservatives still may not love Romney, but after another debate victory, the race is still his to lose.