5111 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Newt Gingrich, speaking before a sympathetic crowd of hundreds in Naples Friday, sought to reclaim his message on immigration less than a week after calling for “humane” treatment of some illegal immigrants.
The comments, made on a nationally televised CNN debate Tuesday, swiftly drew condemnation from hard-line conservatives and fellow presidential candidates who favor strong treatment of those living here illegally. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann called him the “most liberal” GOP candidate on immigration.
But Friday night, before answering questions from among roughly 800 Southwest Florida supporters, Gingrich rebutted accusations and downplayed the possibility his debate comments could derail his surging campaign.
“Some of my friends thought they would articulate alternative versions of what I said that weren’t exactly what I said,” Gingrich said.
It was Gingrich’s first visit to Naples since announcing his candidacy in March. Previously scheduled to be held in the Naples Daily News community room, his campaign switched the venue two days ago to the Hilton Naples on U.S. 41 to accommodate a larger than expected crowd.
More than 100 people stood against the walls and scores more crammed into the lobby. There was no visible or vocal opposition to the former speaker of the House.
Naples is among the most conservative parts of the state, and local residents have poured vast amounts of money into Republican primary campaigns. With such a large contingent of conservative voters, political strategists say the area will carry added clout in Florida’s Jan. 31 presidential preference election.
More than once, Gingrich said Florida will be vital to winning the White House. Earlier this year, his exploratory committee visited West Palm Beach, but much of his time has been devoted to Iowa and South Carolina — two of the three states that will cast votes for the Republican presidential nominee before Florida.
After signing books, Gingrich was scheduled to attend a $1,000-ticket fundraiser hosted by the father of Naples City Councilman Sam Saad III.
While Gingrich worked Friday night to control his message on immigration in opening and closing remarks, the supportive audience seemed little interested, devoting many of their questions to foreign policy and jobs. During the town-hall-style meeting, they asked whether he would save the indebted U.S. Postal Service and how he would help Israeli allies.
He vowed to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and offered support, but no guarantee, for the Postal Service. Gingrich, meanwhile, turned much of his attention to bashing Obama administration policies and detailed plans to scale back the size of the federal government.
Often, his comments drew raucous applause.
After saying he would challenge President Barack Obama to seven debates with no moderator, Gingrich said “If he wants to use the teleprompter that would be fine with me because we have to be fair.”
The crowd was similarly agreeable to his attempts to clarify his immigration stance.
“I think this did a good job of clearing up what his position is,” said Peter Watson, a member of the West Charlotte County Republican Executive Committee. “I think it was misconstrued, and that was expected as soon as he became the frontrunner.”
Gingrich began to rise in national polls earlier this month. Recently he has topped rival Mitt Romney in some polls. However, the former Massachusetts governor remains on the shortlist of GOP frontrunners.
On Tuesday, Gingrich’s campaigned threatened to nosedive when he said “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.”
Romney and Bachmann swiftly pounced during the debate, and continued their jabs throughout the week with Romney equating his immigration approach to amnesty for those who enter the country illegally. Bachmann told PBS Newshour that Gingrich “probably has the most liberal position on illegal immigration of any of the candidates in the race.”
“I am not supporting amnesty for 11 million people,” Gingrich said Friday night to more applause.
Rather, Gingrich outlined his immigration policy, which includes securing the borders, instituting English as the official language and creating an easier path to obtaining a visa.
Illegal immigrants who break the law or pose a threat, such as members of gangs, should be deported immediately, he said. But, repeating remarks from Tuesday, Gingrich offered a chance to remain in the country for undocumented aliens who have been living in the U.S. for 25 years, pay taxes and have deep family and community ties.
To discriminate between the two kinds of immigrants, Gingrich proposed letting local “juries” decide who qualifies.
“I think the vast majority should go home and will go home and reapply,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich encouraged the audience to help quash claims that he supports amnesty. To many in the audience, his answer was acceptable.
“Clearly, a lot of people were under the impression that he favored a pathway toward amnesty,” said Barry Willoughby, founder of the Naples Tea Party group. “After listening to him further refine what he said during the debate, I think he clarified it for myself, (and he) clarified it to the degree that I think he’s genuine.”
Gingrich is slated to hold an 11 a.m. book signing on Saturday at Books-A-Million, 9100 Strada Place. The book signing is free and open to the public.