Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has had more than his share of experience under fire over a variety of issues, both personal and political. (Adam Hunger, Reuters Photo / November 21, 2011)

By Mark Z. Barabak and Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
November 23, 2011, 5:17 p.m.

Of all the presidential candidates who have cycled to the top of the shifting Republican heap, the most improbable may be Newt Gingrich.

Since leading the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House, Gingrich has weathered a series of flip-flops, inflammatory statements and assorted missteps that would have sunk many lesser politicians.

Gingrich’s run is “going to end with Newt and a can of gasoline and a Bic lighter,” predicted Paul Begala, who first sparred with the former House speaker as an advisor to President Clinton. “That’s the way things always end.”

The question in Republican circles is whether Gingrich arrived at such a combustible moment in Tuesday night’s debate. He said that some long-settled illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country — a stance his opponents immediately dubbed “amnesty,” which is anathema to many conservatives.

“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,” Gingrich said.

He endorsed what is known as the “red-card solution,” which would give many illegal immigrants legal status and grant them work permits, but not automatically put them on the path to citizenship.

But even though he staked a middle ground, Gingrich’s comments still rankled many in his party, among them Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an immigration hard-liner whose support is coveted by the party’s White House contenders. He told reporters Wednesday it would now be harder for him to support Gingrich.

Despite the criticism, Gingrich did not back down, stating in an interview on Univision, the Spanish-language network, “I am for immigration reform,” and that it would be impossible to deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

In breaking with most others in the field, Gingrich embraced a position that was once more widely accepted in the Republican Party. No less an icon than President Ronald Reagan signed legislation giving citizenship to millions of people who were in America illegally.

Since then, however, the party has moved to the right and so has its orthodoxy on immigration — even as Latinos become an increasingly important part of the electorate. Gingrich’s more moderate stance could help in the general election, in particular in swing states such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida. First, though, he must battle for the nomination.

For now Gingrich — pedant, provocateur and Washington insider (though he won’t admit it) — remains at or near the top of opinion polls, and even critics such as Begala confess to admiring his durability.

“Perseverance is a great quality to have in life, but especially for a politician,” said the Democratic strategist. “Most people would be under the bed in the fetal position given the shots Newt has taken…. But he’s always been a guy willing to get up one more time after being knocked down.”

To some extent, Gingrich finds himself in his fortunate position through no action of his own. As Republican voters have worked their way through a series of favored candidates — trying the fit, then shedding them like so many winter coats — it afforded him a badly needed chance for a second look after his campaign foundered in the late spring.

But Gingrich has also served himself well with a series of solid debate performances — he stands out in a field where some have struggled with even the most rudimentary questions — and especially his persistent attacks on his media inquisitors, a long-standing target of conservative contempt.

“I love it when he does that,” said Shane Vander Hart, a Republican activist and blogger in Iowa. “He is definitely the smartest guy in the room, no doubt about it. That’s attractive to a lot of people thinking about matching up Obama in a debate.”

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