Newt Gingrich tried Monday to assuage concerns on the right that he was less than hawkish on illegal immigration, laying out a platform nearly as strong as his GOP Presidential Primary opponents.
But he continues to support allowing long-time illegals who have put down roots in U.S. communities to stay in the country under a permanent resident status.
At a town hall event in Charleston, S.C., with U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, Gingrich first stressed his support for the state's new immigration reform law and requirements that suspected illegal immigrants prove their residency when challenged by police.
The policy has been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department, questioning a state's right to create immigration policy. In one of several attacks on President Barack Obama, Gingrich said the president shouldn't side with countries like Mexico against U.S. states.
At a debate last week, Gingrich made headlines by supporting citizenship for long-time illegals, saying it would be inhumane to pull them from their homes. His opponents have pounced, suggesting Gingrich is for "amnesty" for illegals — a Bush-era proposal roundly denounced by conservatives.
Monday night, Gingrich laid out a plan very similar to what has been offered by other conservatives seeking the nomination: a fence across the U.S./Mexico border in short order, beefed up border security, English as the official language, an improved legal immigration and visa process, and a basic history course for citizenship.
Gingrich also highlighted a new pitch to refuse federal funding for communities that deem themselves "sanctuary cities."
And he noted again that a small group of illegals — those who have been here for years — would be allowed to stay if certain conditions were met. "The end result is that most people are going home," he said.
His opponents have argued this is amnesty.
Ed Bennett of West Ashley said he'd vote for the former speaker. But he had made up his mind before the town hall meeting.
"He can overcome any problem just the way he overcame the question of illegal immigration," Bennett said.
All Over the Map
Scott has hosted several of the GOP primary candidates, including Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.
In standard fashion, the town hall with Gingrich included questions from audience members and submitted on Facebook. It provided for a wide range of issues in the nearly 90 minute forum.
Among them, Gingrich said he'd reform the legislative process, saying there are no good bills at 2,600 pages. "We need fewer laws that are shorter."
He also said that, if elected, he'll call on Congress to repeal healthcare reform in the lame-duck session.
Gingrich also received a loud applause when he said that waterboarding is not torture. But he noted that he'd only use it in unique circumstances and it should only be used under the direct authority of the president.
"I do that, frankly, only out of concern for world opinion," he said. "We do not want to be known as the country that capriciously mistreats human beings."
Asked about a running mate, Gingrich said with a smile that Scott would be on the shortlist, but that it would be presumptuous to talk further about that.
Though Gingrich referenced the jabs he has taken in the past week, he avoided attacking the other primary candidates.
"We have several friends running," Gingrich said. "Our only opponent is Barack Obama."
UPDATE: This story was changed at 10:13 a.m. Nov. 29 to strike a reference to a "path to citizenship" and note that Gingrich supports the right for long-time illegal aliens to remain in the country under a permanent resident status if certain conditions are met.