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Will Gingrich's comments on illegal immigration come back to haunt him?

The Republican presidential hopefuls will be back on the campaign trail Wednesday after clashing at their eleventh debate Tuesday night. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.

Tuesday night's debate focused primarily on foreign policy and national security. It featured light-hearted remarks about the GOP candidates' and moderator's names (Herman Cain accidentally referred to CNN's Wolf Blitzer as "Blitz"). And it shined the spotlight on a handful of audience questioners -- like former Bush administration officials Paul Wolfowitz and David Addington -- who played a key role in the United States' war in Iraq. 

But perhaps the most significant exchanges took place near the end of the debate on an issue not usually directly associated with foreign policy: illegal immigration. And they involved the latest GOP national front-runner (or co-front-runner): Newt Gingrich.

POLL: Where do you stand on illegal immigration?

"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."

When Michele Bachmann took issue with that statement -- equating it to "amnesty" -- Gingrich replied, "I do suggest, if you go back to your district and you find people who have been here 25 years and have two generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church, as somebody who believes strongly in family, you're going to have a hard time explaining why that particular subset is being broken up and forced to leave, given the fact that they've been law-abiding citizens for 25 years."

And after Mitt Romney said that "amnesty" was a magnet for illegal immigrants, the former House speaker added, "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's comments on illegal immigration are likely to delight Latino organizations, Democrats pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, and old Bush administration officials who tried to pass such reform into law yet failed. 

But support for a more "humane" policy on illegal immigration has knee-capped recent Republican presidential candidates. In the 2008 cycle, John McCain had not only supported comprehensive immigration reform; he co-authored legislation on the subject with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. McCain's candidacy in the GOP primary suffered -- due in part to his views on immigration -- and he didn't truly recover until he disavowed his support for comprehensive immigration reform.

This cycle, Rick Perry -- who soared in the GOP polls after he announced his candidacy in August -- hit a brick wall after his GOP rivals (especially Mitt Romney) hit him on his support for allowing the children of illegal immigrants to have in-state college tuition in the state.

Will Gingrich be the latest Republican presidential candidate to trip over illegal immigration in a GOP presidential primary? We'll soon find out. 

Ironically, Romney himself appeared to support comprehensive immigration reform, according to a March 2006 article in the Lowell (MA) Sun. 

"I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country," Romney said, per the paper. "With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. Those who've been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn't be here; those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship, as they would from their home country."

But his rhetoric has changed considerably since 2006.