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Can Timing Save Newt from Perry’s Fate?

As Jonathan noted, Newt Gingrich offered a balanced approach to the issue of illegal immigration last night, but one that–as Rick Perry showed–is still controversial among Republicans in many states, including Iowa. There are some equally thoughtful critiques of Gingrich’s position, and Mickey Kaus offers a few today. Gingrich’s proposal was heavy on nuance, light on red meat, and framed as an appeal to common sense.

But so was Perry’s, yet his poll numbers were halved by the time the dust settled after his infamous answer to the immigration issue in September. So why should Gingrich be any different? Timing and temperament.

Perry’s complete answer on immigration was just as thoughtful as Gingrich’s, but he tripped himself up when he told those who disagreed with him, “I don’t think you have a heart.” It’s all most people remembered from the debate, and it was a decidedly uncharitable way of engaging his critics. Gingrich came close by suggesting we should be “humane” about enforcing immigration law, but it lacked the accusatory punch of Perry’s statement.

Perry’s comments on immigration also sounded defensive. Gingrich took a tone that was professorial even by Gingrich standards and accommodating on any scale. Gingrich focused on “we,” Perry put the spotlight on “you.” Conservatives are by now tired of the accusation of heartlessness, and anything that can be interpreted as an attack on their character or intentions is going to be loudly rejected. Gingrich managed to thread the needle on an issue on which it is vitally important to do so.

But the other advantage Gingrich has over Perry on this is his placement as the right bookend. Perry’s surge in support came at the beginning of primary season; Gingrich may be looked upon by those opposed to Mitt Romney’s nomination as the last best hope. When the candidates return from Thanksgiving, they’ll have one month before the Iowa caucuses. Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann have all had their chances. Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul won’t be getting one. If the “Not Romney” folks drop Gingrich, it would in all likelihood end the nomination contest before the first ballot is cast.

Gingrich is not backing down from the issue, as he proved in the post-debate interviews last night. He’s got a month to convince Iowans, though–a tougher assignment than winning over CNN political correspondents on the merits of a compassionate immigration plan.