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Gingrich: Most illegal immigrants should leave, reapply to become citizens

By NBC’s Alex Moe

NAPLES, FL -- Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich defended his immigration policy after days of criticism from other GOP contenders – reiterating that he does not support amnesty -- on Friday night before his largest crowd yet on the campaign trail.

Erik Kellar/AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich addresses a town hall meeting Friday at the Naples Hilton in Naples, Fla.

"I am not for amnesty for anyone. I am not for a path to citizenship for anybody who got here illegally," Gingrich told the crowd of roughly 750 people, many of whom were forced to stand in the hallway. "But I am for a path to legality for those people whose ties are so deeply into America that it would truly be tragic to try and rip their family apart."

The former House speaker, who is seen as one of the front-runners for the GOP nomination, has been taking some heat on his stance on immigration since Tuesday’s debate. After the debate some of his Republican rivals – Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney – have accused Gingrich of supporting amnesty, which the speaker said Friday night was misinformed.

"It speaks badly of any candidate who would deliberately repeat something which they know is not true," Gingrich told the packed crowd inside a Naples Hilton ballroom. Later, he added, "Ironically, in the Reagan Library debate I think most of them actually agreed with me," on my immigration policy.

Gingrich wants to model his immigration plan for illegals already in the country on the WWII model of the Selective Service System program, which allowed local communities to decide who would be drafted for war. He noted that the program "really tried to take general policy and give it a human face."

"I think the vast majority [of illegal immigrants] will go home and should go home and then should reapply. I do not think anybody should be eligible for citizenship," the former speaker said to loud applause in Southwest Florida with his wife, Callista, sitting in the front row of the audience. "I am suggesting a certification of legality with no right to vote and no right to become an American citizen unless they go home and apply through the regular procedures back home and get in line behind everybody else who has obeyed the law and stayed back there."

Gingrich has been rapidly rising in the polls recently despite questions raised about his ties with Freddie Mac and now on his policy on illegal immigrants. Back in the summer months, many Republicans and pundits wrote off the former speaker after more than a dozen of his staff quit unexpectedly.

"Remember, I was supposed to be dead in June or July," Gingrich said. "One side of that is that for a long period of time, they didn’t pay any attention to me."

Gingrich and his wife are scheduled to sign books Saturday morning in Naples.