Washington (CNN) -- In his first debate as the Republican frontrunner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a political gamble Tuesday by wading into the volatile issue of limited amnesty for long-time illegal immigrants.
"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," Gingrich said near the end of the CNN debate on national security.
"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," he added later. "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.' "
The heat came quickly, with competing candidates including top rival Mitt Romney labeling Gingrich's stance as outright amnesty -- a virtual swear word in tea party vernacular.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor considered too moderate by many conservatives, positioned himself well to the right of Gingrich on the issue by calling his rival's idea a form of amnesty that will attract more illegal immigrants.
"Amnesty is a magnet," Romney said, adding that past programs in the country "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."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite, also went after Gingrich, telling CNN after the debate that "if you're legalizing 11 million workers, it sounds like amnesty to me."
Analysts agreed Gingrich will get criticized by the political right for his stance, though there was no certainty about what, if any, long-term damage would ensue.
David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst, noted Gingrich broke from conservative orthodoxy and took a more humane position than people would generally associate with him.
"I think he'll take a hit in the conservative community," Gergen said, but added that moderate Republicans and independents "seeing the humane side of Gingrich tonight might be a plus."
A CNN poll Monday put Gingrich atop the GOP presidential field for the first time with 24% support, compared to 20% for Romney in second place. However, the poll also found that only 9% of respondents said Gingrich was the most likable candidate.
Dana Loesch, a CNN political contributor and St. Louis tea party organizer, said Gingrich's immigration stance will anger grassroots conservatives, but she noted that he has been consistent on the issue in his career.
Loesch called Gingrich's logic on the matter "unsound," adding that "breaking the law for a quarter of a century does not make that law somehow less illegal."
At the same time, Loesch praised Gingrich's overall performance and said she thought he generally helped himself on the night.
After the debate, Gingrich offered more details on the issue in comments to CNN, saying he wasn't talking about any kind of blanket amnesty.
"There's lots of people who will go home" because they are illegal immigrants with no ties or roots in the United States, he said. "There's also millions who will end up staying."
"I want to be tough but I do not want to kid people," Gingrich said, adding that he can't imagine "any reasonable person" who wants to "tear families apart."