Gingrich, Huntsman, Bachmann Likely to Shape Conversation After Debate

Jon Huntsman is at the back of the pack in the polls and Newt Gingrich is at the front, but their respective performances at the GOP presidential debate, sponsored by CNN, The Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. will most impact the political discussion in the coming days.

In a debate in which many of the questioners were associated with the neoconservative establishment that shaped much of George W. Bush’s foreign policy but whose influenced has lessened considerably this election cycle, Huntsman emphatically stated that the United States did not need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

In a testy exchange with Mitt Romney, Huntsman at one point asked Romney if Romney heard “what I just said” before explaining his position on Afghanistan again. When Romney mentioned that he would rely on his commanders and generals on the ground and disagreed with Huntsman’s call for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to better use the country’s military capabilities for counter-terror purposes in other regions, Huntsman pounced on Romney’s answer to remind Romney that, “at the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief.”

Further, Huntsman also went on to bring up the example of Vietnam, a war in which the so-called “best and the brightest” often turned out to be anything but that. 

This exchange put Huntsman closer to the primary electorate in the GOP and especially in New Hampshire while making him seem more authoritative than Romney.

Of more consequence, though, was Huntsman’s linking the country’s economy directly to its foreign policy strength, or lack thereof. 

Huntsman said that “our biggest problem is right here at home. So I have to say that our biggest problem is right here at home. And you can see it on every street corner. It’s called joblessness. It’s called lack of opportunity. It’s called debt, that has become a national security problem in this country. And it’s also called a trust deficit, a Congress that nobody believes in anymore, an executive branch that has no leadership, institutions of power that we no longer believe in.”

Huntsman asked, “How can we have any effect on foreign policy abroad when we are so weak at home?”

“We have no choice,” Huntsman said. “We’ve got to get on our feet here domestically.” 

Americans are increasingly frustrated with and distrustful of government and its institutions and want to “throw them all out,” and Huntsman may have found an issue — the trust deficit — that he can use to claw back into viability. 

That is something to keep an eye on in the days ahead. 

Gingrich, on the other hand, does not need to scrap his way back into the mix like he had to two months ago because he is at the front of the pack. He sparred with Ron Paul on civil liberties and national security and forcefully called for regime change in Iran. Gingrich turned in a commanding, calming, and convincing performance on the national security portion of the debate.

But when asked about what he would do with illegal immigrants in this country, Gingrich gave a nuanced answer that distinguished between citizenship and legality. His answer could have the effect of giving him just enough conservative and establishment support to win the nomination while not losing his viability among potential Hispanic voters in the general election, or it could potentially allow his opponents to flank him from the right on immigration to chip away at his lead in the polls and drive down his positive intensity numbers among Republicans.

“If you’re here — if you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period,” Gingrich said, before adding that, “If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Immediately, Michele Bachmann disagreed:  “Well, I don’t agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty. And I also don’t agree that you would give the DREAM Act on a federal level. And those are two things that I believe that the speaker had been for, and he can speak for himself. But those are two areas that I don’t agree with.”

Romney also jumped in by saying, “Look, amnesty is a magnet. What when we have had in the past, programs that have said that if people who come here illegally are going to get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that’s going to only encourage more people to come here illegally.”

Gingrich made clear that if someone has come recently to the United States illegally and has no ties to the U.S. that person should be deported–in addition to criminals. He said, “We should have severe penalties for employers” and should control the border first.

Then, Gingrich reiterated what he has been saying at many campaign stops.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century,” Gingrich said. “And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

While Gingrich made a nuanced distinction between citizenship and legality by emphasizing that these illegal immigrants should not gain citizenship but should have a legal way to stay in the country, his opponents may be able to jump on his words and frame him as a blanket supporter of amnesty.

Bachmann can use this issue to get herself back in the game, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. She had a strong showing on foreign policy, especially in describing Pakistan as “too nuclear to fail,” which was how an Atlantic Monthly/National Journal cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder described Pakistan. 

Rick Perry, whose candidacy imploded when he suggested that those who disagreed with his signing a Texas law that gave in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants did not have “a heart,” can also hammer Gingrich as a supporter of amnesty and try to get back into contention.

And if the race becomes a two person battle between Messrs. Gingrich and Romney, Romney could hit Gingrich on immigration to skim away just enough single issue voters to potentially put him over the top.

Gingrich said that he is willing to take the heat for his nuanced stance on illegal immigration.

How he handles the heat that will be turned up on him in the coming days may determine his fate.