(CNSNews.com) - Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivered some effective lines during Tuesday evening's Republican presidential foreign policy debate, but the candidate currently leading in the polls also arguably took the greatest risk, defending views on immigration that many conservatives view as amounting to amnesty.
The debate in Washington D.C. -- co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute and broadcast on CNN -- had the eight GOP contenders covering ground from South Asia to the Middle East to the U.S.-Mexico border, with candidates sparring over the Patriot Act, foreign aid, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's proposal to enforce a "no-fly" zone over Syria.
In the latter part of the debate, Gingrich came under fire for his views on how to tackle the issue of illegal immigration.
He called for "a comprehensive approach that starts with controlling the border" and included a guest-worker program.
"If you've come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period," Gingrich said. "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."
Invited to respond, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) said, "I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, too, said the proposal amounted to amnesty.
"To say that we're going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing," he said.
"I specifically did not say we'd make the 11 million people legal," Gingrich responded.
He reiterated that he believed illegal immigrants who arrived recently and have no ties to the U.S. should be deported, that there should be severe penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and that the border must be secured.
But, Gingrich continued, "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."
"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."
Pakistan and Iran
Although the debate focused on foreign policy, candidates also touched on national security and pressing domestic issues, particularly the failure to reach a debt-reduction agreement in Congress and the looming Defense Department cuts.
Pakistan came in for robust criticism, with several of the candidates accusing it of not doing enough to help in the fight against Islamist terrorists.
"I would not send them a penny, period," declared Perry, adding that "to write a check to countries that are clearly not representing American interests is nonsensical."
Bachmann called that stance "highly naive," arguing that the U.S. could not afford to step back because of the risk of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal falling into jihadists' hands.
But she also called Pakistan "a nation that lies - that does everything possible that you could imagine wrong."
Gingrich won applause when he confronted the premise in a question that the killing of fugitive al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, found sheltering on Pakistani soil, had damaged bilateral relations.
"I think this is the heart of the American dilemma," he said. "We were told - a perfectly natural Washington assumption - that our killing bin Laden in Pakistan drove U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low. To which my answer is: well, it should have because we should be furious."
Gingrich said the U.S. should inform Pakistan, "Help us or get out of the way, but don't complain if we kill people you're not willing to go after on your territory, where you have been protecting them."
What to do about Iran, its nuclear ambitions and the threat posed to Israel and the U.S. featured strongly in the debate.
On the question of whether the U.S. should support Israel, directly or in some other way, in attacking Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Herman Cain cautioned that such a mission would be difficult.
But, he said, if the Israelis had a credible plan that appeared likely to succeed, then as president he would support it.
"And in some instances, depending upon how strong the plan is, we would join with Israel for that, if it was clear what the mission was and it was clear what the definition of victory was."
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) said he did not expect the Israelis to attack Iran's facilities but would not help them if they did: "They decide they want to bomb something, that's their business, but they should, you know, suffer the consequences."
Turning to sanctions, Perry pushed for targeting Iran's central bank while Gingrich went further, arguing for a strategy that would bring down the regime "with minimum use of force."
"If we were serious, we could break the Iranian regime, I think, within a year, starting candidly with cutting off the gasoline supply to Iran and then, frankly, sabotaging the only refinery they have," he said.
"I think replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon," Gingrich added. "Those are your three choices."
On Afghanistan, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman questioned the need to have "100,000 troops nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built."
He said the number of military personnel should be drawn down to 10,000 or 15,000, with a focus on intelligence gathering, Special Forces response and some training of the Afghan army.
Romney disagreed with Huntsman, saying, "This is not time for America to cut and run."
"The commanders on the ground feel that we should bring down our surge troops by December of 2012 and bring down all of our troops - other than perhaps 10,000 or so - by the end of 2014," Romney said. "The decision to pull our troops out before that, they believe, would put at risk the extraordinary investment of treasure and blood which has been sacrificed by the American military."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also took issue with Huntsman's proposal. He said radical Islamist leaders were saying, "just wait America out, America is weak, they will not stand for the fight, they cannot maintain this, they'll set time limits, politics will interfere."
"And President Obama, by making political decision after political decision about timelines and constraints on rules of engagement, has validated everything these radical Islamists are saying," he added.